SI's Texans Season Preview: More Highs Than Lows

SI's Houston Texans 2020 NFL Season Preview: More Highs Than Lows For AFC South Champ
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The Houston Texans enter a new decade off of yet another season filled with enthralling highs and debilitating lows. Head coach and now general manager Bill O’Brien’s club finished the 2019 season 10-6 with yet another AFC South division title under its belts. And despite a spirited victory against the Buffalo Bills in the wildcard round, as is the trend for the Texans in the postseason it all came to a disappointing and premature end at the hand of the soon to be Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs.

The 2020 edition of the Texans promises differences, now with a young offensive play-caller in Tim Kelly, a newly-appointed defensive coordinator in Anthony Weaver and a fellow first-time coordinator in special-teams coach Tracy Smith. All three coaches bring with them high expectations from peers and players alike, and hopefully, a fresh take on Houston’s at-times stagnant play-calling of recent years.

Notable changes are in place. "Is different better'' remains the lingering question.

Offense

The elephant in the (locker) room is, of course, the DeAndre Hopkins trade. Swapping away a generational talent such as Hopkins is unusual at the best of times, but doing so in the form of a second-round pick this year, a fourth-rounder next year, and running back David Johnson?

That rubbed many the wrong way.

Whether or not this trade was "ludicrous'' or "genius'' we will have to wait and see, but the ramifications of this trade go beyond just adjusting who will be QB Deshaun Watson’s top target.

Johnson will essentially replace last year's surprise star, running back Carlos Hyde. A career year for the journeyman ended with 1,070 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. Given O’Brien and Kelly’s penchant for using their backs all over the field, the addition of a player with a diverse skillset like Johnson will only bolster this offense as he looks to forge a partnership with fellow dual-threat back Duke Johnson.

With Hopkins now in Arizona, the question remained who would take over his reps. The obvious candidate is fifth-year receiver Will Fuller. The speedster out of Notre Dame is one of the most productive receivers in the game, when healthy.

However, his injury struggles continued in 2019 and thus the Texans opted to bring in fellow bullet-like receiver Brandin Cooks and slot expert Randall Cobb. Alongside third-year receiver Keke Coutee, who will be looking to return to his electrifying rookie form this season, Kenny Stills who was a real game-changer at times last season, rookie Isaiah Coulter, and return specialist DeAndre Carter this receiver room does not appear to have a clear No. 1 target.

Throw in the stacked tight end room led by Darren Fells (fresh off a career year with seven touchdowns), Jordan Akins, Jordan Thomas, and the potential diamond in the rough that is Kahale Warring and this offense suddenly goes from "interesting" to "potentially un-guardable.'' It seems their philosophy is simple: give Watson as many targets as physically possible, and then add one more.

Defense

Newly appointed coordinator Weaver brings with him not only experience as an NFL starter (three years of those in Houston), but experience as a coach at NRG since 2016. Weaver’s former defensive line coach and defensive coordinator in Baltimore, Rex Ryan, spoke earlier this summer about the former Ravens aide's promotion and it is safe to say his expectations are high.

“He’s one of the guys we’ll be talking about him as a head coach in the next few years with that kind of personality and that kind of charisma,” said Ryan, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. “He’s smart. Anthony’s going to do a great job. I’m really excited about him.”

The lineup will be similar to that of 2019 when it comes to starters, with the likes of J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Justin Reid the biggest names to watch for. Linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham are two of the most under-appreciated at their position in the NFL, with Cunningham in particular on the rise this past season and, in my opinion, on his way to an All-Pro call-up. Also, keep an eye out for third-round rookie Jonathan Greenard as the year progresses.

Second-round rookie defensive tackle Ross Blacklock looks likely to fill the void left by D.J Reader after he departed in free agency for the Cincinnati Bengals for a four-year, $53 million deal the Texans simply couldn’t afford. Expect Angelo Blackson to take over more of Reader’s duties in the run game - and it also wouldn’t be a shock if O’Brien brought in further depth at the position.

The Texans secondary has been their Achilles heel for some time now, but expect some improvements this season. Cornerbacks Lonnie Johnson and Gareon Conley both enter their second seasons in this system, with the former having impressed greatly with his work ethic this offseason. Slot corner Bradley Roby returns having signed a new deal this year worth $31.5 million over three-years, rookie John Reid will look to be a special teams contributor early on, while versatile safety Eric Murray arrives from the Cleveland Browns to fill the hole left after the Texans let Tashaun Gipson go.

Prediction

Given the lack of preseason games and a shorter training camp, predicting the success of any team at this point is harder than ever. However, while the defense may struggle for depth yet again this season, this versatile and entirely unpredictable offense should give fans plenty of reason to be excited. This team appears built on overpowering defenses. ... and still has star power on the other side of the ball, too.

Their schedule this year is undoubtedly tough. If they can reach the bye week after seven games with four wins they would have reason to be ecstatic, with the Chiefs, Ravens, and Titans looking like the toughest games to win.

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Optimistically, the Texans could finish this year 10-6 if their offense really takes shape as expected. More realistic might be 9-7, but if they are to keep up with their biggest division rivals in Tennessee, and an improving Philip Rivers-led Indianapolis Colts, they will have to hit the ground running. Injuries and potential losses due to COVID-19 on defense will prove the key this season. Their lack of depth at pass rush is a concern and their secondary is still questionable.

Whether the Texans can make the most of what is already one of the strangest NFL seasons to date will depend on the success of their new play-callers and their ability to adapt to a rapidly-changing environment and squad.

Expected Depth Chart

Offense:

QB: Deshaun Watson, A.J. McCarron

RB: David Johnson, Duke Johnson

FB: Cullen Gillaspia

LT: Laremy Tunsil, Roderick Johnson

RT: Tytus Howard, Charlie Heck (R)

LG: Max Scharping, Senio Kelemente

RG: Zach Fulton, Rick Leonard

C: Nick Martin, Greg Mancz

LWR: Brandin Cooks, Isaiah Coulter (R)

RWR: Will Fuller, Kenny Stills

SWR: Randall Cobb, Keke Coutee

TE: Darren Fells, Jordan Thomas, Kahale Warring, Jordan Akins

Defense:

DE: J.J. Watt, Charles Omenihu, Brandon Dunn, Carlos Watkins

DT: Ross Blacklock (R), Angelo Blackson

OLB: Whitney Mercilus, Jacob Martin, Jonathan Greenard (R), Brennan Scarlett,

MLB: Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, Dylan Cole, Peter Kalambayi

LCB: Gareon Conley, Vernon Hargreaves

SS: Eric Murray, A.J. Moore,

FS: Justin Reid, Michael Thomas, Jaylen Watkins

RCB: Lonnie Johnson, Keion Crossen

SCB: Bradley Roby, John Reid (R)

Special Teams:

P: Bryan Anger

K: Ka’imi Fairbairn

LS: Jon Weeks