Offseason Report Card: Houston Texans
With the flurry of NFL offseason action nearly in the books, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar take stock of every team's offseason. Find all our Offseason Report Cards here.
The winds of change blew through Houston this offseason, a jet steam brought on by the combination of an awfully disappointing 2-14 season, a coaching change and some salary cap issues. On account of that last bullet point, the Texans sat out the early days of free agency -- a cautious approach that left them with several roster holes to fill in the draft.
The most glaring issue that arose even before the 2013 season concluded was at quarterback, as Matt Schaub struggled before and after an ankle injury and Case Keenum provided little more than temporary relief. The Texans swapped out Schaub for veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick once the offseason began but failed to add a certain No. 1 option. Fourth-round draft pick Tom Savage may leapfrog Fitzpatrick, Keenum and T.J. Yates eventually. But for now, the Texans are facing another season of QB uncertainty.
A string of free-agent departures also did this team no favors: Ben Tate, Antonio Smith, Earl Mitchell, Daryl Sharpton and Joe Mays, to name a few. Three starters may have arrived over the opening three rounds of the draft, in Jadeveon Clowney, Xavier Su'a-Filo and Louis Nix III. They will help. Just maybe not enough.
Offseason Grade: C+
Best acquisition Jadeveon Clowney, DE.
For better or worse, the selection of Clowney at No. 1 overall this year will be a defining moment in the tenure of GM Rick Smith. Clowney stood out as the top football talent in the 2014 draft for months and months, only to have his detractors point out a lack of production last season. The Texans entertained the thought of trading down from the top spot, too, before opting for Clowney over a potential franchise quarterback. Smith, coming off a 2-14 season, needs Clowney to be everything it appears he can be.
"No, again I felt prepared," said Smith when asked if he felt pressure to nail the Clowney pick. "I think when you’re confident in your process and the [people] who are working with you, then I think it gives you a chance; and you’re diligent in your preparation, then I don’t think there is a need to be nervous or a reason to feel pressure."
Biggest loss Antonio Smith, DE.
Certainly a case can be made for RB Ben Tate here. He produced 911 total yards last season while serving as a safety net for starter Arian Foster. The Texans are hopeful that newcomer Andre Brown can step into that role in 2014, but Brown's past injury issues leave him well shy of being a sure thing.
In Smith, though, the Texans are losing someone who has been an anchor on their defensive line since arriving in 2009. He missed but one game during that time -- Week 1 last season on suspension for ripping off Richie Incognito's helmet and swinging it at him. Those cap issues, Smith's age (32) and his dipping production added up to Houston allowing him to walk. The franchise will miss him, both as a reliable player up front and as a lively locker-room presence.
Underrated draft pick: Louis Nix III, DT.
Anytime the chance arrives to land a first-round talent with pick No. 83, it's a serendipitous turn of events. If healthy (potentially a big "if"), Nix could more than make up for the loss of former starting NT Earl Mitchell in free agency. Nix has upward of 30 pounds on Mitchell, meaning he should be better suited for a gap-plugging role up front, which in turn will help create lanes for Clowney, J.J. Watt and others.
A meniscus issue and tendinitis held Nix back in 2013, so his long-term health will be something to monitor. Barring any setbacks, Nix ought to push -- and soon overtake -- free-agent signee Jerrell Powe as a starter in the middle.
Looming question for training camp: What will this offense look like (and who will be under center)?
The Texans offense of old was wholly recognizable under Gary Kubiak, with a zone-running attack setting the table for play-action passing. O'Brien will incorporate some elements of the Kubiak-designed offense, but he has promised to keep the playbook rather wide open, declining to even commit to a zone or man scheme.
Much of what O'Brien -- and the Texans as a whole -- will be able to do will hinge on how effective the starting quarterback is moving forward. So Step 1 for O'Brien: figure out who is the starting quarterback. O'Brien's background working with QBs should allow him to max out whichever guy winds up there. He wasted little time turning highly-touted freshman starter Christian Hackenberg into a borderline star for Penn State last season, buoying the youngster with a ground game that produced 2,000-plus yards and a passing game featuring repeated quick strikes to WR Allen Robinson, now with the Jags.O'Brien likely will tailor his offense to whichever of Fitzpatrick, Keenum, Savage or Yates emerges as the frontrunner. The Texans may be deep into the preseason before a decision can be made.