Worst to First: Texans Edition
It seems as though every year there’s divisional darkhorses who shock virtually the entire league. The reigning Super Bowl Champion Eagles were at the division floor just a season ago in 2016. While the rise of Wentz was predictable, the team’s climb from average to elite was certainly not as foreseeable. The only other team in the NFL to jump from fourth to first in their respective division was the Jaguars. This was largely aided by the Free Agent acquisitions of AJ Bouye, Calais Campbell and Barry Church. The Jaguars’ defense, nicknamed Sacksonville, lead the NFL with 55 sacks, and finished second in turnovers created with 33. While they bring back everyone on the defense except for Paul Posluszny, who retired this past offseason, the Jaguars look poised to claim only a Wild Card spot in this years playoffs.
The Texans were plagued by injuries last season with starters Watson, Fiedorowicz, Watt and Mercilus missing over half the season each. As a result, the Texans finished 4-12, going just 1-9 in the 10 games following Watson’s season ending knee injury. Watson put up historic numbers in his 6 starts, throwing for 19 touchdowns, which was good enough for 18th in the NFL, as well as the most in NFL history in as many starts. Fiedorowicz had a breakout campaign in 2016, and it would have been lovely to see what he could have done in an offense run by Deshaun Watson, but unfortunately concussions have forced retirement amongst the young tight end. Watt and Mercilus formed one of, if not the best pass rush duo in the NFL, combining for 29.5 sacks in their last full season together, but their season ending injuries passed the duties onto Jadeveon Clowney, who bodes better as a run stuffer than a pass rusher.
The Texans are healthy coming into the 2018 season, and having their star quarterback and pass rushers back alongside some offseason acquisitions should propel the Texans back up to the top of the division. Watson was so essential to last season’s offense not only because he was slinging the ball as well as anyone else in the NFL, but he was also athletic enough to mask shaky offensive line play. That will prove to be important once again for the Texans because even though they improved their line by picking up G Zach Fulton, G/OT Senio Kelemete, OT Seantrel Henderson, as well as drafting Mississippi State utility man Martinas Rankin, the offensive line still poses questions upon quarterback security. The defense however, shouldn't be cause for question. The front seven is composed of superstars Watt, Clowney and Mercilus, while linebackers Cunningham and Cole got valuable experience last season. In the secondary they added a cornerback in Aaron Colvin and a consensus top 5 safety in Tyrann Mathieu. Kareem Jackson also made the transition from cornerback to safety this offseason, which was long overdue considering his coverage skills are generously mediocre but he was likely the best tackling corner in 2017. They undoubtedly improved their roster, and while it may still be the second best roster in the division, their schedule will be the deal breaker for them to win the division.
Only 9 of their 16 games this year come against teams that finished above .500 in 2017. One of these games comes against the Patriots in the season opener, where they’ll be playing without their best wide receiver Julian Edelman due to PED usage, another comes against the Washington Redskins who lost their starting quarterback in Kirk Cousins to the Vikings, and another comes against the Bills whose quarterback and wide receiver rooms are likely the worst in the NFL. The Texans’ toughest game comes against the Eagles in week 16, which could very well see some backups play if the Eagles have locked up a playoff spot in the difficult NFC. That leaves the Texans with five rivalry games, two against the Jaguars, two against the Titans, and one in-state game against the Cowboys. Rivalry games are generally the hardest to predict, simply because it usually comes down to which team is more prepared to go to war, and not which team boasts the better roster. It’s unlikely though that the Texans will have a poor showing against these teams because they’ve gone 15-9 within the division since Bill O’Brien took over as coach in 2014, and with this schedule, their floor this season may be 9-7, which would include some bad losses as well.
The Texans may not be overlooked going into this season, but the new and exciting Jaguars seem to be the pick to run away with the AFC South, and my advice to them, gear up for a tight race. While the Texans got healthy along the defensive line and at linebacker, the Jaguars still boast the more talented lineup, and while the Texans added some key pieces in the secondary, the Jaguars have the most talented secondary in the league. The Texans advantage though? Quarterback and schedule. Tempered expectations for Watson should be in the cards considering teams now have NFL tape to watch and pick up tendencies from, but he’s assuredly a massive upgrade from the quarterback carousel of Savage, Yates and even Heinicke, and Jaguars’ quarterback Blake Bortles is likely closer to their talent than he is Watson’s. With all these facts considered, look for the Texans should lock up the AFC South for the third time in four years.