HOUSTON -- Can a team entering the next phase of a "re-tooling" have an actual MVP? The Houston Texans certainly will have options in that category to go along with breakout star and Rookie of the Year.
Coming off back-to-back four-win seasons, the Texans have a newfound sense of urgency entering the 2022 season. Lovie Smith is a player's coach who demands respect and perfection in practice. So far this summer, practices have been running smooth. There also a clear picture of the team's direction now with quarterback Deshaun Watson traded to Cleveland.
The "MVP" on a sub-par team usually is the one with the biggest stat line. Then again, perhaps it's the player that takes the biggest leap in their progression from a season ago? Of course, it could be both depending on the player and position.
The Texans are looking for cornerstone pieces for their long-term future. More than likely, these three are viewed as that along with being the leader's in the huddle.
Here are the Texans' three most likely MVP candidates for the 2022 season.
Honorable Mention: RB Dameon Pierce
It's not every day that you see a fourth-round rookie make the list, but Houston is desperate at the running back position. After averaging a franchise-worst 3.4 yards per attempt in 2021, the Texans have to provide a more stable run game if they hope to win close games.
Pierce comes from a running back-by-committee approach in Florida, but he was at his best inside the red zone. Of his 13 touchdowns, 11 came from inside the 20. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's play design is expected to rely heavily on the run game, making Pierce and Marlon Mack a vital part of any progression.
Mack likely leads the team in rushing yards due to an early workload, but don't be surprised if Pierce emerges at the top runner by the season's end. Expect him to also lead the team in rushing touchdowns and potentially even yards per attempt.
3. QB Davis Mills
The quarterback might be the most important position on the field, but Mills still has plenty to show before he's viewed as the franchise guy. That said, he arguably was the best rookie passer toward the final weeks of the regular season.
When looking at Mills' rookie season, one must separate it into two different entities. At first, the third-rounder looked like a mid-level player who was far from ready to start, leading to multiple games of consistent turnovers and limited offensive execution.
Once he returned to the starting role in Week 13, it was as if he was a different player. Mills posted a 102.4 passer rating — eighth-highest among all active quarterbacks in that span with nine touchdowns against two interceptions. He also picked up a pair of wins over the Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angeles Chargers.
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Mills led all rookies in 300+-yard passing games (four) while averaging 7.2 yards per attempt. He also improved when playing at NRG Stadium, throwing just one interception against 12 touchdowns while completing just under 70 percent of his throws. The offense also should have a new feel with the additions of Mack, Pierce, offensive lineman Kenyon Green and receiver John Metchie III.
In what's expected to be a loaded quarterback draft class, there's little room for error with Mills. So far, he's looked to be one of the more improved players in OTAs this summer. Let's see if it'll translate to meaningful snaps on Sundays.
2. DE Jonathan Greenard
For the first time in two years, the Texans might have their J.J. Watt replacement in terms of production in pass-rushing. Greenard could be a one-year-wonder, or last season could be a blossoming sign of where he's headed entering Year 3.
Smith elected to move Greenard to defensive end after taking over the defense. The results drastically played in favor as he'd finish with a team-high eight sacks to go along with nine tackles for loss. The number likely would've been higher if a foot injury didn't limit him to 12 games.
Smith spoke highly of Greenard's ability to win at the point of attack when it came to facing offensive tackles. Last season, the former Florida standout finished as Pro Football Focus' 11th ranked pass-rusher with a grade of 82.9.
Houston brought in four pass-rushers this offseason after electing to pass on the top names in the draft. The quartet is likely fighting for reps among themselves to play opposite Greenard on a majority of early downs.
The Texans have high hopes that last season was the start of something special with the young pass-rusher. If Greenard can surpass 10 sacks this year, general manager Nick Caserio will likely be entering extension talks before the start of 2023.
1. WR Brandin Cooks
Mills, Watson, Tyrod Taylor; all have worked with Cooks. All have benefitted.
There's a reason Caserio wasn't fielding calls for Cooks prior to the draft for more capital. He's the team's offensive leader and the definition of consistency in the passing game. If the Texans are truly hoping to see if Mills can be the long-term option, why take away his best player to begin with?
Cooks once again surpassed the 1,000-yard marker despite missing one game. His 90 receptions were a career-high, as were his 134 targets. On average, Cooks recorded at least six receptions per game — three more than second-leading receiver Nico Collins.
The level of consistency Cooks brings to an offense is uncanny. In eight years, he's hit the 1,000-yard marker six times. He's done it on four teams with five different quarterbacks as well.
More than anything, Cooks is beloved in the locker room and sets the tone on Sundays prior to kickoff. In all accounts, he's been the Texans' MVP for two seasons. Barring a surge from another candidate, he likely already has locked up the award a third time.