At this point, it has become somewhat customary to expect to read little more than negative predictions when it comes to the 2021 Houston Texans. One key area that perhaps is being overlooked and underestimated is their offensive capabilities.
It appears inevitable that one way or another, the Texans will be without their star quarterback Deshaun Watson. His productivity will be near impossible to replace with just one player.
It appears Texans general manager Nick Caserio is doing is playing a little bit of Moneyball. Instead of looking for one player to fill the void, the pressure will be spread out by improving across the board.
First off, Phillip Lindsay and Mark Ingram join David Johnson in the backfield providing not only competition for reps but also a depth that lacked last year.
Keep in mind that Lindsay and Ingram are both just one year removed from 1,000-yard rushing yard seasons.
Marcus Cannon, Lane Taylor, and Justin Britt all join a revamped, and on-paper improved interior offensive line. Key tackles Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard both return to complete a line that has a high ceiling.
At wideout, while Will Fuller will be tough to replace, a smart trade back into the third round of the NFL Draft this year helped the Texans acquire Nico Collins out of Michigan - a big-bodied target with real upside and potential to replace Fuller from the word ‘go.’
Houston also added veterans such as Chris Conley and return specialist Andre Roberts, who should give the Texans a weapon on special teams that they simply haven’t had in some years.
And let’s not forget Brandin Cooks. As one of the most overlooked players in the league, he's had five 1,000 receiving-yards seasons in seven years, even though he's been traded four times.
In 2020, while the rest of the Texans seemed to fall apart at the seams around him, in 15 games Cooks still recorded 1,150 receiving yards.
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The tight ends room has also seen numerous additions such as solid veteran Antony Auclair, who should replace Darren Fells’ blocking abilities, while fifth-round rookie Brevin Jordan could prove to be one of the sleeper picks in this year’s draft with athleticism and agility not commonly found in tight ends his size.
Yes, there is an elephant in the room.
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Technically, Watson is still a Texan and while highly unlikely, he could suit up for them in 2021.
But realistically, that ship has sailed and by so doing Houston has lost arguably the most exciting offensive talent this franchise has known. While Watson is the kind of player that really cannot be replaced like for like (unless Patrick Mahomes suddenly decides he wants to come back to Texas), the potentially increased productivity and options elsewhere should help get the best out of whoever ends up starting.
The most likely starter is veteran Tyrod Taylor. Is he on the same level as Watson? Frankly, no. But then again, few are.
What he does bring though is experience, a cool head, a similar playing style, and plenty of experience with head coach David Culley (who coached Taylor to his only Pro Bowl appearance in 2015), offensive line coach James Campen, and most importantly, quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton.
Hamilton could prove to be Houston’s secret weapon.
Renowned for his ability to get the best out of quarterbacks, he had a huge hand to play in the rise of LA Chargers rookie Justin Herbert last year, and Andrew Luck throughout his time at both Stanford and Indianapolis.
While he can’t be expected to turn Taylor into Watson 2.0, he should be able to milk every ounce of football the 31-year-old has left in him.
Meanwhile, he’ll have rookie Davis Mills to work with behind the scenes. Mills comes from Stanford, and thus Hamilton knows exactly what kind of system he comes from, should know what to expect from him, and where to focus their attentions.
Hamilton has proven in the past he’s more than capable of improving rookies, and while Mills lacks collegiate experience and has areas he needs to improve in, he does have the raw talent necessary to be a success.
Again, looking like a competent and effective offense without someone like Watson leading the way will be significantly harder than had he remained. But Taylor and Hamilton should not be discounted at all.
There will be growing pains along the way. The offensive line may take time to adjust to a new coach and so many new players, and some of the additions may have played their best ball.
The running backs, particularly Ingram and Johnson, may be past their best (but thankfully Lindsay is still only 25). Collins might not prove to be the steal he seems to be, and Taylor may struggle to fill shoes the size of Watson's.
Caserio's "Moneyball''-esque approach at least gives Houston's offense a chance. There is talent here. Can an improved blocking unit combined with a better run game, more receiving options and a decent dual-threat QB replace Watson's productivity? That's the plan.
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