With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
The Houston Texans are in a difficult position that many other NFL teams would enjoy. They’re consistent winners, stacked at nearly every position, with a coaching staff and front office as stable and consistent as any you’ll find in the league. But they go into the 2013 season seen as serial underachievers, because they’re unable to get past any team not named the Cincinnati Bengals in the playoffs. So, head coach Gary Kubiak has to answer questions about why his team isn’t doing more, despite a 22-10 regular-season record over the last two seasons.
The good news? In a league where change is the norm, the Texans appear poised to prove the doubters wrong. Quarterback Matt Schaub isn’t a top-five guy, but he’s more than qualified to lead a deep playoff run when he’s on. Arian Foster runs behind one of the best and most stable offensive lines in the NFL. Andre Johnson has long been one of the league’s great receivers, and he’s got a new buddy we’ll talk about in a minute. A stacked front seven has a star in J.J. Watt, who may have had the most statistically significant season by an interior lineman in league history. A secondary that seems to be rising in power gets veteran help from Ed Reed, one of the best safeties … well, ever. Linebacker Brian Cushing is back after losing 11 games last season to injury.
In short, there’s no reason that, outside of an injury plague, the Texans shouldn’t be considered a Super Bowl contender. On the down side, everyone’s aware of that, and anything less than Super Bowl contention will be considered a failure.
It’s a rich man’s dilemma, but as the great philosopher Notorious B.I.G. once said, “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems.” It’s time for the Texans to cash in.
• Biggest storyline: How far Matt Schaub can drive this team.
The relative “eliteness” of NFL quarterbacks is a stale discussion at best, but Schaub is a guy who’s spent his NFL time just under that bar. He’s one of the league’s more efficient quarterbacks -- always finishing just under the true greats in metrics both traditional and advanced -- but he’s still a mixed bag at times. He must be better in the red zone, and one of these years, his mobility will start to fade.
Fair or unfair, quarterbacks are judged to a large extent by their postseason performances, and as Texans general manager Rick Smith recently told the NFL Network, Schaub is under the microscope in that regard.
"He understands that. He knows that. And he does have to play better in those situations for us to take our team to the next level," Smith said. Schaub made his postseason debut last season, finishing with 605 yards passing, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a fumble over two games.
• Most intriguing positional battle: Right tackle.
This is a real issue because the Texans are a right-handed run team operating out of heavy zone-blocking schemes, and Schaub runs as much boot-action to the right side as any quarterback. Last year, Derek Newton racked up seven penalties, allowed four sacks and totaled 18.5 blown blocks, per Football Outsiders’ game-charting metrics. Newton is recovering from patellar tendon surgery, and rookie Brennan Williams will get a lot of looks in the preseason -- if he can get past the knee issues that have been plaguing him since rookie minicamp. Sixth-round pick David Quessenberry, who’s been moving all over the place early on, might surprise at the position if everything else falls apart.
• New face, new place: Safety Ed Reed.
Through 11 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, Reed proved that he was a player and leader of the highest caliber. The Texans signed Reed to a three-year, $15 million contract in March, and everyone’s already raved about what Reed’s brought to Houston’s young secondary from an experience perspective.
The question is, when will Reed be fully recovered from hip surgery, and how much will he be able to show on the field?
“I’m impressed with where he’s at,” Kubiak recently said. “He’s come a long way, watching him work with the guys today. They’ve got him on a program. We’ll work him out early in the mornings when the team’s doing individual stuff and try to have him available when we’re doing team, so he’s learning our system and those types of things. He knows what he has to do to get ready, but I’m impressed with how far he’s come.”
• Impact rookie: Clemson receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
Hopkins was my favorite receiver in the 2013 draft -- his tape brought Roddy White and Julio Jones to mind, and Hopkins appears to be living up to all his potential. He’s following Andre Johnson around like a puppy (smart move), and Kubiak recently compared him to Rod Smith, the former Denver Broncos great Kubiak knows well from his time on Mike Shanahan’s staff in the Mile High City.
“He’s doing a heck of a job for a young player,” Kubiak said of Hopkins on Monday. “He doesn’t look like a very young player out here. He understands what we’re doing. He’s making a lot of plays every day. He’s a worker and, as a coach, that’s probably the greatest gift you can get when you get a draft choice and they come in. You know they’re good players or you wouldn’t draft them, but when they’ve got these tremendous work habits, it adds to what you’ve already got on your team.”
Johnson has long sought a truly complementary target to take the heat off, and Hopkins could very well be the answer to his prayers.
• Looking at the schedule: It's a tough one, if the rest of the AFC South steps up. The Texans split their season series with the resurgent Indianapolis Colts, and swept their games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans. If those last two teams rise up from mediocrity, it adds to the complexity of a schedule that also includes early matchups with the Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams. That’s their dance card in a brutal four-game stretch that starts in Week 3. Later in the season, they’ll host the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots. The Arizona Cardinals-Oakland Raiders-Jacksonville Jags stretch in November should provide a welcome respite.