Published August 25, 2014
(SportsNetwork.com) - Whether the rest of the team will function closer to 2012 form or 2013 form is up for debate.
But sheesh, the Houston Texans should be able to harass opposing quarterbacks.
Taking the most dominant lineman of the past two NFL seasons - J.J. Watt - and giving him a running mate of the freakishly gifted caliber of No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney is almost unfair to the Andrew Lucks, Blake Bortles and Jake Lockers of the world - who figure to be seeing the two in their nightmares twice a season for the next several years.
But while pairing Watt and Clowney alongside each other takes a lot of heat off of the other nine players lining up as part of the Houston defensive corps, it doesn't completely erase the glaring problems that exist with a franchise that went from two-time defending AFC South champion to 2-14 laughingstock.
Nowhere is that concern more justified than at quarterback, where Matt Schaub has been run out of town and journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick has been inserted as the No. 1 option on a roster that includes the likes of Case Keenum at No. 2 and untested rookie Tom Savage at No. 3.
It figures to be Savage's team before too, too long, but the interim won't be without its migraines for first-year coach Bill O'Brien, who'll roll the dice with a starter who's never had a season where he's won more than lost - resulting in an overall starting slate of 27-49-1 from days with St. Louis, Buffalo and Tennessee.
"This whole thing is a work in progress," Fitzpatrick said. "It's a process where we're kind of moving along and we'll continue to get better and hopefully that shows leading up to the season."
Elsewhere, a sleepless night or two might come from O'Brien worrying about the health of workhorse running back Arien Foster, who played just eight games last season. In case he goes down again, a backfield of Fitzpatrick and Jonathan Grimes - who has 23 NFL carries - is a frightening reality.
Still, even if sleep eludes him, perhaps O'Brien can bide his time with thoughts of Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston, the prospective top two quarterbacks available at the 2015 draft.
"I still feel good about this group of guys, no question about it," O'Brien said. "I really enjoy coaching (them). Every single day I enjoy being around them. We're working hard to fix it and we're going to continue to work hard to get these guys on the same page with us, (then) go out there and win some games."
2013 RECORD: 2-14 (4th, AFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012, lost to New England Patriots in AFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Bill O'Brien (first season with Texans)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: None
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Romeo Crennel (first season with Texans)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (from Titans), ILB Akeem Dent (from Falcons), S Chris Clemons (from Dolphins), S Kendrick Lewis (from Chiefs), DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney (first round, South Carolina), G Xavier Su'a-Filo (second round, UCLA), TE C.J. Fiedorowicz (third round, Iowa), NT Louis Nix (third round, Notre Dame)
KEY SUBTRACTIONS: QB Matt Schaub (to Raiders), QB T.J. Yates (to Falcons), RB Ben Tate (to Browns), TE Owen Daniels (to Ravens), DE/DT Antonio Smith (to Raiders), NT Earl Mitchell (to Dolphins), DT Terrell McClain (to Cowboys), DE/OLB Bryan Braman (to Eagles), ILB Joe Mays (to Chiefs), CB Brice McCain (to Steelers), S Danieal Manning (to Bengals)
QB: It's not an old NFL adage, but it might as well be: "If Ryan Fitzpatrick is your starting quarterback, don't bother printing playoff tickets." OK, maybe it's not that bad for the former Harvard University passer who's managed to carve out a nine-year career in the NFL, but it's not necessarily that good either. He steps into the vacuum left by Matt Schaub's fan hastened departure, and he starts for the Texans only because Schaub's initial replacement, Case Keenum, didn't exactly set the world ablaze.
Rookie Tom Savage was a fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh, and may actually have a chance to make an impact at some point.
RB: Arian Foster has a five-season NFL resume that 99.9 percent of players would kill for - including 5.063 yards and 45 rushing touchdowns - but he played just eight games last season and will be a bull's eye on a team whose quarterback play is at best unreliable. Andre Brown was brought in to take Ben Tate's No. 2 role, but he was cut in training camp and leaves that responsibility to second-year man Jonathan Grimes, who has 23 NFL carries for 79 yards with three teams.
Jay Prosch, a 256-pounder from Auburn, was drafted in the sixth round and penciled in as the top man at fullback. Nine-year NFL veteran Ronnie Brown was also in camp after getting just 45 carries for San Diego last season.
WR: Andre Johnson has caught 100 or more passes in five of the last eight seasons - including 109 in 2013 - but he's made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the Texans. He was a no-show at voluntary offseason workouts, and it's a steep drop from him to the No. 2 receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, even though Hopkins did manage 52 catches and 802 yards as a rookie in last year's mess.
Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey, each in his third season, are also on hand as receivers.
TE: Garrett Graham was serviceable while making 11 starts and catching 49 passes last season, but he's more likely just keeping the spot warm for third- round pick C.J. Fiedorowicz, who seemed ready made for the new Bill O'Brien offense. Fiedorowicz caught at least one pass in his final 31 games at Iowa, and finished his career with 91 catches for 899 yards and 10 touchdowns.
OL: Duane Brown returns at left tackle and Chris Myers is back at center after both turned in respectable performances in 2013. Xavier Su'a-Filo was selected with the first pick of the second round and is already figured in as a starter at right guard. Derek Newton was a starter in all 16 games at right tackle last season and returns, while Ben Jones has the top training camp depth chart position at left guard, though that could be jumbled if Su'a-Filo, who's listed second there, takes over and leaves the right side to someone emerging from the mix of Alex Kupper, Conor Boffeli, Bronson Irwin or Brandon Brooks.
Also in the mix are veteran Tyson Clabo and James Ferentz.
DL: J.J. Watt has emerged both on the football field - and the television screen - as a bona fide NFL superstar, thanks to a tireless work ethic and a quick smile. His 10.5 sacks were remarkably 10 off his 20.5 a season earlier, but he's still a pass-rushing menace who figures to have more freedom this season from his spot at right end.
Jared Crick has the inside line on the starting spot opposite Watt at left end, while Jerrell Powe is listed No. 1 at nose tackle. The Texans drafted Louis Nix from Notre Dame in the third round, and it won't be long before he's knocking on the door to man the nose.
Keith Browner, Jeoffrey Pagan, Ricardo Mathews and Tim Jamison are also in the rotation.
LB: Early indications are that first-round pick Jadeveon Clowney will approach the lofty expectations that Texans fans established for him when he went No. 1 overall. He'll take an outside linebacker spot and should immediately clear space for Watt to create a devastating pass-rushing duo. Brooks Reed was selected in the second round in 2011 and maintains a hold on an outside position, while Brian Cushing will try to get through a season unscathed on the inside. A torn ACL cost him all but five games of the 2012 season, before a broken leg ended his 2013 return after only seven games. Alongside him inside I third-year man Mike Mohamed, though Akeem Dent came in from Atlanta as a free agent.
Others providing depth include Jason Ankrah, Justin Tuggle, Jeff Tarpinian and Whitney Mercilus.
DB: Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph return as the starting duo after they made a combined 29 starts and intercepted three passes last season. Kendrick Lewis and Chris Clemons were both free-agent signees and are in competition for the free safety role, while 2013 draft pick D.J. Swearinger has a leg up on a starting slot at strong safety, though Lewis could play there if Clemons grabs the other position.
A.J. Bouye is a depth cornerback and Shiloh Keo is another available safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Both kicking elements of the 2013 special teams are back, in the forms of place-kicker Randy Bullock and punter Shane Lechler. Bullock started gingerly, but finished with 12 consecutive made field goals. Lechler, meanwhile, was middle of the pack when it came to per-punt average, but placed enough balls inside the 20-yard line to rank third in the NFL in that category.
Mike Thomas and Keshawn Martin are listed as Nos. 1 and 2 on both the punt return and kick return depth chart.
COACHING: Bill O'Brien took over an unimaginably bad situation at Penn State and managed to keep the program above water, winning 15 of 24 games in two seasons before he was tapped to replace the exiled Gary Kubiak. He's considered a good fit temperament-wise, and his past NFL apprenticeship under Bill Belichick in New England can't help but be a good thing.
And though the Texans were accustomed to good things for a few years before 2013, any significant turnaround from the 2-14 debacle a season ago will augment O'Brien's status as a miracle worker.
THE SKINNY: They're not as good as they were in 2012, but they aren't as they appeared last season either. The opening half of the schedule offers a solid chance at a .500 start, which could stoke the confidence of the holdovers from the 2011-12 glory days. The second eight games is equally ripe with victory possibilities as well, so don't be surprised if the Texans win as many as they lose out of 16.
In the end, it'll be a referendum on Fitzpatrick at quarterback. If he plays above his career baseline, perhaps playoffs will be part of the chatter at some point. But if he is what he's typically been, the .500 mark will be the high end of realistic expectations. Call it 7-9 with a chance at one game either way.