“Obviously it’s disappointing not to make the [playoffs], that is the goal every year,” Texans general manager Rick Smith said at the scouting combine in February. “But to have a winning season and to start the way that we were able to start gives us a chance, and it set a good foundation.”
Smith was right. The Texans deserve to take solace in an impressive one-year turnaround in 2014 under new head coach Bill O'Brien in which they followed up a nightmarish 2–14 showing in 2013 with a 9–7 mark, narrowly missing out on the postseason.
With that finish, though, comes the burden of expectation.
It can be a tough sell to ask NFL fans for even a modicum of patience, but that's what Smith and the Texans did last year. After claiming the franchise's first back-to-back appearances in 2011 and '12, Houston has gone two seasons without a playoff berth, all while division rival Indianapolis has cruised through the division and crept ever closer to the Super Bowl. In spite of an omnipresent question mark at quarterback, Smith and O'Brien achieved enough together in Year One to slap a “postseason or bust” tag on the 2015 campaign.
No surprise, then, that the off-season has been a hectic one for the Texans as Smith attempts to build on that so-called foundation. Five key starters from the '14 club are no longer around, including longtime face of the franchise Andre Johnson. Both starting safeties (Kendrick Lewis and D.J. Swearinger), the Texans' seven-year starter at center (Chris Myers), and a decent linebacker (Brooks Reed) also left town.
Smith's choices at quarterback were limited once again, so he held onto Ryan Mallett and signed ex-Brown Brian Hoyer. With that combo, the Texans' quarterback depth chart ranks somewhere between second and fourth in the division, light years behind the Colts with Andrew Luck and competitive with the Jaguars and Titans depending on how Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota develop.
Several new faces will look to help replace Johnson's production at receiver, the most noteworthy of the bunch being free-agent signee Cecil Shorts and talented third-round pick Jaelen Strong.
Both of the Texans' draft choices prior to Strong came on the defensive side of things: cornerback Kevin Johnson and linebacker Benardrick McKinney. They could be starters as early as Week 1, especially in McKinney's case. Joining them on Houston's revamped unit will be Vince Wilfork, fresh off a Super Bowl win with the Patriots, and Rahim Moore, who should take one of the two vacated safety jobs.
The Texans had more talent in 2013 than their 2–14 mark showed, and they proved that to some extent last season. Now we'll find out if 9–7 is the ceiling or the floor for this franchise under O'Brien.
Best acquisition: Vince Wilfork, DT
The Texans' plans at nose tackle quickly went awry last season when rookie Louis Nix missed most of camp with a knee injury, then landed on injured reserve after hurting his wrist. Nix's main fill-ins, Jerrell Powe and Ryan Pickett, are both no longer with the team.
Eventually, Nix will be asked to anchor the middle of the line. In the meantime, the defense was in need of a big body up front, and Smith could not have done much better than the one he found. Wilfork, who turns 34 in November, may not be an every-down defender anymore, but he remains a monster against the run.
“Yeah, it makes us all feel good to see number 75 in the middle of that defense,” Bill O’Brien said Monday, per the Texans' team website. “He’s a great, veteran player. He’s added a lot to our locker room. We’re very happy to have him here.”
Any defender capable of drawing some focus away from J.J. Watt is valuable. Houston has not really had a desirable complement to its superstar the past few seasons. While Wilfork will add little pass rush himself (he has not recorded a sack since 2012), there's no doubt he poses more problems for offensive lines than Pickett or Powe.
His arrival is even better news for McKinney, Brian Cushing and the Texans' other linebackers. With Wilfork eating up multiple blockers, that group will find openings to get to the ball.
Houston's defensive line is a one-man band no more.
Biggest loss: Andre Johnson, WR
After 12 seasons, 1,012 catches, more than 13,000 yards and 64 touchdowns, Johnson's historic Texans career came to an end when he was released in early March. Will his absence be felt more in an emotional or a physical sense?
Shorts made 53 catches in 13 games last season with the Jaguars, and rookie Jaelen Strong hauled down 82 receptions at Arizona State. Between them, the newcomers most likely to see action with incumbent DeAndre Hopkins should be able to surpass the 936 yards and three touchdowns Johnson finished with in 2014.
Of course, Johnson's numbers dipped due to inconsistent quarterback play as much as anything. With Andrew Luck throwing him the football, he no longer has that issue. Johnson and the Texans clearly had reached the end of the road—the front office tried to trade him before his release, mainly because Johnson wanted out.
Seeing him on the other sideline in a Colts jersey, though, will hammer home that split.
“No player in the history of this franchise has represented the team, city and community in a more professional way,” Smith said in a statement announcing Johnson's release. “Andre is a Hall of Fame-caliber player and we appreciate his years of service and contributions to our team.”
Houston may be better off in the long run, but it's never easy for a franchise to part ways with one of its heroes.
Underrated draft pick: Christian Covington, DL, Rice (round 6, pick No. 216)
Had Covington (6'2", 289 pounds) returned and stayed healthy for his final season at Rice, he easily could have jumped into Day Two of the draft. As it was, a knee injury that cost him most of the 2014 campaign left him on the board for Houston in round 6.
Covington could develop into yet another troublemaker up front for a team already capable of bullying defenses with Watt and Wilfork. The Vancouver native will slot in as a backup defensive end, but he has the versatility to be considered by teams running either 3–4 or 4–3 base sets. Covington generates a lot of power when he's at 100%.
And if it does not work out for Covington in Houston, he could give the CFL a shot. He was selected in that league's draft by his hometown team, the British Columbia Lions.
The Texans also scored some points with their work pursuing undrafted free agent: Safety Kurtis Drummond (more on him shortly), offensive lineman Greg Mancz and outside linebacker Lynden Trail all could have been drafted without anyone batting an eye at that choice.
Looming question for training camp: Who are the starting safeties?
Yes, the quarterback competition between Hoyer and Mallett will draw overwhelming attention through camp. There are other lineup decisions to be made, though, and second on the list of priorities is settling the safety spots.
Moore has to be considered the heavy favorite at free safety, having signed a three-year, $12 million deal this off-season. That price is more than reasonable for a 25-year-old safety with four years of starting experience under his belt. Moore's never going to be a 100-tackle guy—he does not play the run effectively enough to make that a realistic benchmark—but he has eight career interceptions and plays a competent centerfield.
Strong safety is more up in the air. If the season opened this week, relative unknown Eddie Pleasant probably would have the gig. An undrafted player out of Oregon, Pleasant has been on Houston's roster since 2012 but has started all of one NFL game.
“They're giving me an opportunity now, and I'm trying to take full advantage of it,” Pleasant said at OTAs after working with the first-team defense, via the Houston Chronicle. “They've put me in position where I have more things to do, and I've got a lot to prove.”
Drummond, ex-Giant Stevie Brown and 2014 seventh-rounder Lonnie Ballantine are among those also in the mix. Brown tore his ACL two years ago and needed foot surgery this off-season, but he did have a breakout eight-interception showing in 2012. Drummond could be the wild card. While he was a little hit and miss in his play at Michigan State, he was the Big Ten's Defensive Back of the Year last season and constantly made plays on the football, finishing with eight interceptions and 25 passes defensed.