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2012 Record: 12-4, lost in divisional round to PatriotsKey Pending Free Agents:Connor Barwin, OLB; Glover Quin, S; James Casey, FB; Brice McCain, CB List of Draft Picks (pending compensatory picks): 1 (27), 2 (57), 3 (89), 4 (121), 5 (153), 6 (185), 7 (217). Available Cap Space: $5 million GM/Coaching Moves: Hired longtime NFL defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina as assistant defensive line coach.
2012 Season Recap
Coming off their first playoff run in franchise history in 2011, the Texans jumped out to a 5-0 start and looked like the team to beat in the AFC. They won three of their first four by 20 points or more and established themselves as the only contender that was equally strong on defense and offense. The only negative headline early was linebacker Brian Cushing suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 against the Jets.
The Texans stumbled in Week 6 -- a 42-24 loss to the Packers -- but bounced right back, beating the Ravens 43-13 to start a six-game win streak. They entered a Week 14 Monday night showdown with New England at 11-1 with an inside track to the No. 1 playoff seed. That's when several of the cracks that had been slowly starting to emerge came to the forefront. Wade Phillips' defense was outmatched in a 42-14 loss, and Matt Schaub began a slump that he never really got out of. They did bounce back to beat Indy the following week, but lost their last two games and fell to the No. 3 seed in the AFC.
Even though their season ended on a disappointing note, they had a league-high nine Pro Bowlers and players at the top of several statistical categories. Wide receiver Andre Johnson overcame a slow start to finish second in the NFL with 1,598 receiving yards. Running back Arian Foster was sixth in the NFL with 1,424 rushing yards and led the league with 15 rushing TDs. And defensive end J.J. Watt led the NFL with 20.5 sacks and captured Defensive Player of the Year.
Stat To Feel Good About
16.J.J. Watt's tipped passes. In addition to being a relentless pass rusher, Watt is smart enough to drop back and disrupt the passing lanes if he doesn't think he has a path to the quarterback.
If It Ain't Broke ...
The Houston coaching staff said Watt's season was right there among the best of all time. The second-year defensive end led the NFL with 20.5 sacks to go with four forced fumbles and 22 tackles for a loss. He is the perfect player for Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme, and could challenge Michael Strahan's single-season sack record if he gets a little more help from his fellow pass rushers. That group includes Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin, who both saw their sack totals drop in 2012 (from 6 to 2.5 for Reed, 11.5 to 3 for Barwin) after seeming poised for stardom, and Whitney Mercilus, who had 6 sacks as a rookie. Speaking of ...
3. Number of Texans outside linebackers who ranked in the bottom 10 for pressure per snap at the 3-4 OLB position -- Mercilus (7.29) was fifth lowest, Barwin (7.5) seventh lowest and Reed (8.22) 10th lowest -- according to Pro Football Focus.
Must Fix It
Texans GM Rick Smith said re-signing Barwin before he becomes an unrestricted free agent is a high priority, but they may consider letting someone else overpay for his services and turning to the draft, which is deep with pass rushers who could rotate in with Mercilus and Reed. Playing outside linebacker in this system shouldn't be that hard with opposing offenses focused on slowing down Watt, but against good passing teams the Texans still didn't generate enough pressure. It's not the team's most glaring need, so it may not be a big target in the first round, but it's something the Texans should address at some point early in the draft.
More On The To-Do List
1. Draft a wide receiver. The Texans still haven't been able to find a bonafide threat to complement Johnson, despite trying for years. They won't have the cap space to sign a veteran, and the young players they've drafted recently don't appear to be the answer. This year's draft appears to have some depth at receiver, and Houston will be looking for an outside threat. Someone like Tavon Austin, whose elite speed would open space for Johnson to operate, could be an option at the bottom of the first round.
2. Draft an inside linebacker. The Texans' lack of depth became apparent after Cushing went down, and they've come out and said they plan to address this shortcoming. The Texans draft at No. 27 in the first round and should get a crack at Manti Te'o, but quality inside linebackers typically fall to the middle rounds.
3. Try to fix the right side of the offensive line. The Texans were young and unstable in this area last season and it cost them. Adding more young players via the draft doesn't seem like the obvious solution, but they don't have a choice.
What We'll Be Saying In July
Some fans will say it's now or never for the Texans. Johnson is entering his 11th season. Schaub will be 32 soon, and should be at his peak. But that says more about how we view teams now. Everyone expects Super Bowl winners to be built overnight. The Texans improved last season and now seem capable of being a perennial playoff team. But they lack some of the ingredients of a champion. Start at quarterback, where Schaub's late-season woes contributed to the slide that cost them homefield advantage in the divisional round. His teammates and management have been busy defending Schaub, but they should realize QBs always take the fall.
Still, the Texans have plenty of reasons to feel hopeful. They have arguably the best defensive player in the league, Watt, a top-three running back in Foster and a top-three receiver in Johnson. And they play in a division with three unproven teams. The Colts made the playoffs but were aided by a weak schedule and are still young. And the Jags and Titans have question marks at quarterback. Most experts will probably stick with the Texans to capture the AFC South once again. Nevertheless, only a deep playoff run will satisfy the fans in Houston who are becoming more and more used to winning.
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