The AFC South is all set to be one of the more interesting divisions in the NFL this season. It was not that long ago that the division was the biggest joke, at least in the AFC. However, now it is loaded with talent. You have three really good quarterbacks and one of the best defenses in the entire NFL. So how is this division likely to turn out in 2018? Yesterday I took a look at the Indianapolis Colts. Now it is the turn of the Houston Texans.
Big things are expected from this offense in 2018. The reason for that? The return of Deshaun Watson to the field. The sophomore quarterback took the league by storm last season, until injury ended his rookie year early. Now he will return with a whole heap of expectation on his shoulders. With that expectation will come a lot of pressure and he will need all of the support of his offense to help him. The good news is there is a lot of talent likely to be on this field but is it centered in the right place?
With D’Onta Foreman going down injured with an Achilles issue and being placed on the PUP this job belongs to Lamar Miller. Miller is an interesting player. He does enough to not lose his job but at the same time not enough to ever really seem to have a firm grip on the job. In the last two seasons his yards per attempt have dropped below four, which is concerning. However, he has had problems with his offensive line and that can be tough for a rusher to over come. In addition, his quarterback has never been this good since being in Houston, so he regularly has to deal with stacked boxes.
Behind Miller you have the ever reliable but unspectacular Alfred Blue. Blue is not a threat to take the job from Miller but he can provide serviceable yards and productive touches when required. Tyler Ervin will likely have some involvement with the return game and if he could put it together for the offense he could be an interesting x-factor. This group has the potential to help the Texans cause trouble in 2018.
This group is the class of the offense outside Watson. DeAndre Hopkins is a monster and will relish the opportunity to play with a quality QB in Watson. As long as he is on the field the Texans will always pose a threat to opponents. His partner in crime is Will Fuller. Fuller’s numbers with and without Watson last year are incredibly different so he will be hoping that he can see plenty of time on the field with Watson. Fuller’s biggest issue is health and the Texans may need to nurse him through at times to ensure they have him on the field when the season hits crunch time.
With Braxton Miller released the Texans will be hoping Keke Coutee can step up and be the third threat they need. If Fuller goes down he may need to be even more. For now they will likely roll with Bruce Ellington as their three but if Coutee cannot displace him sooner rater than later the Texans may be questioning their draft choices.
This is a weak group. Ryan Griffin is probably going to feature as a block first tight end meaning his impact in the passing game will be limited. Jordan Akins, the rookie, is the exciting prospect but his blocking is a concern, and I cannot see the Texans using him as an in line tight end if that remains the case. Akins could find himself playing as a split out receiver/tight end hybrid at times this season.
Here is where things get really dicey for this offense. This line struggled last year and the Texans knew full well they couldn’t let that happen again. Therefore, they added three new offensive linemen in free agency, preferring veterans to stocking their line with rookies. The best way Watson can be effective is to be kept clean in the pocket. He can be effective scrambling around but eventually he will get hurt. We have seen it with so many QBs over time, they cannot routinely get hit and keep getting up just fine. If this line cannot be at least adequate in the run and pass game this offense cannot function well enough to win games. It is a serious concern entering the season.
In general this is a very good group but injuries are always an issue. Keep the main guys on the field and you have a great until who can dominate. Lose a few guys and suddenly there could be way too many shootouts.
Naturally J.J. Watt is the feature piece here but his health is an issue. When healthy Watt is a wrecking ball that can single-handedly ruin offensive game plans. However, since starting his career with five straight full season, he has played just eight games the last two years combined. Beyond him there is not much on this line so the Texans need him to play every game for them if they are to have a shot at making the playoffs.
This is a solid group led by Jadeveon Clowney and Benardrick McKinney. Both men ranked in the top-40 among linebackers according to roster resource, with Clowney making the top-10. Despite that Clowney has failed to have that true put yourself on the map big time season. Hopefully 2018 can be the one. In addition, they have Zach Cunningham and Whitnet Mercilus starting, both very good players in their own right. However good this unit may seem, they will be a lot more toothless if Watt can not be effective, or on the field, upfront. In addition, the depth at this position is so-so due to their investment in offense in recent drafts. An injury or two here could really ruin this unit.
The further back you go the better it seems to get. Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are joined by free agents additions Aaron Colvin and Tyrann Mathieu. This unit could sneakily be one of the best in the league. The big question mark will likely be around Colvin, and whether he can make the switch from slot defender to outside cover corner. If he does then this unit is rolling, if he does not then they may quickly be looking for another outside guy. They do not have an obvious guy to step in but at least they know Colvin can handle himself in the slot if things do turn out for the worst. If these four stay healthy I like what they can bring to this team but they need Watt and Clowney to put pressure on the QBs if they are to have a chance to be a true shutdown group.
The Final Word
This team is top-loaded with talent. They have it at all positions outside of their offensive line and tight end. However, there are two issues. First the offensive line. If they cannot protect Watson then the Texans franchise QB could struggle mightily and may not last the season. What use are Hopkins and Fuller if Watson does not have time to get them the ball or is sat on the bench in street clothes nursing an injury? Watson will make plays but his chance of playing the full season are slim if the line does not hold up.
The second major issue is their depth. If Watson goes down, Brandon Weeden starts. At almost every position the gulf between starter and backup is the widest in the league. They need to avoid injuries to as many of Watson, Miller, Hopkins, Fuller, Watt, Clowney, the other linebackers and the defensive backs if they are to stand a chance of competing for this division. That is a lot to ask for.
What all this means is I think the Texans remain another year away from making a true playoff run. I expect bad offensive line play and injuries to hamper them all season. When they have it clicking they will look immense but they are possibly going to be involved in a lot of shootouts with Watson running for his life. That does not seem a sustainable way to win this division.
Projected Finish: 3rd (8-8)
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