NFL preview 2017: Houston Texans

Mandatory Credit: Grant Halverson-Getty Images
Mandatory Credit: Grant Halverson-Getty Images /

The Houston Texans have won the AFC South two years running. Can they make it three years in a row in an improving division, going further in the playoffs?

The Houston Texans have won the AFC South the last two seasons and four times in the last six years. Houston has been able to reach the AFC playoffs thanks to outstanding play from its defense.

The offense, well, that’s been another story. Not since Matt Schaub was running the West Coast under then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan five years ago have the Texans had anything closer to competent quarterback play.

Last year, they rolled the dice with Brock Osweiler and that went horribly. He was traded with three years on his contract to the Cleveland Browns, as well as a second-round draft pick for Cleveland to eat his salary. He has since lost the starting quarterback job to rookie DeShone Kizer.

But that was last year, and Houston should be back as a major contender in the AFC again this year. Houston traded up to No. 12 with Cleveland to draft national championship-winning quarterback Deshaun Watson out of Clemson. While he lost the starting job in the preseason to incumbent Tom Savage, this is clearly Watson’s team for the future, as Savage keeps the driver’s seat warm for him.

Houston has the playmakers in its front-seven to bully around any offense it goes up against. While the greatest player in franchise history in defensive end J.J. Watt was on the mend with a broken back, that saw former No. 1 overall pick in Jadeveon Clowney finally reach his potential on the gridiron.

Having the guy who Clowney was supposed to replace in Whitney Mercilus playing at a high level has the Texans absolutely loaded in the box. Often-injured linebacker Brian Cushing is a tackling machine. Houston was able to get a stud inside linebacker out of Vanderbilt in Zach Cunningham to help out this year in the front seven as well.

Though cornerback A.J. Bouye left in free agency to sign with the rival Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston does return guys in the secondary like Johnathan Joseph, Kevin Johnson and Kareem Jackson. Should Watt come back ready to play at a best-player-in-the-league-level, this could be the best defense in football.

The problem is that for as strong as this Texans defense is, this is not a good offense. Head coach Bill O’Brien is supposedly a quarterback whisperer, but his first three seasons have not resulted in establishing a franchise quarterback. Could it be Watson? Let’s hope so.

Lamar Miller is a good, but not great running back, running behind a mediocre offensive line. While wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins has top-tier playmaking abilities, the Texans struggled to get him the ball in 2016 after a breakout season the year before. Will Fuller has blazing speed on the outside, but will drop a pass or two on a deep vertical route.

In short, the Texans are going to win games mostly because of its formidable defense. The change from Romeo Crennel to Mike Vrabel will be seamless. Vrabel was promoted from linebackers coach, while Crennel remains on the Houston staff. Continuity in scheme and personnel should have the team’s defense keeping Houston in the playoff hunt alone.

What it will really come down to is improved play from the quarterback position, as well as the offensive line. Houston has the skill position players to make a charge in the playoffs, but will need time to get open and a reliable quarterback that can get him the ball.

Though Savage won the job over Watson heading into Week 1, there will come a point where Watson will push to overtake the incumbent. Savage is approaching his NFL ceiling as a solid backup quarterback. Watson won big time in Clemson, but his NFL prototype remains a mystery. Is he Marcus Mariota, Tony Romo, or one of a kind?

His ability to extend plays gives him an edge over Savage, but Watson’s proclivity to throw interceptions could send him back to the bench should he struggle in that department in a mid-season start. Either way, Houston has to win at quarterback to win several playoff games this January should the Texans qualify.

As for their ranking in the AFC South, it will likely come down to the Texans and the Titans for the division crown. Indianapolis has the weakest roster in the division and an unhealthy quarterback in Andrew Luck. Jacksonville has the worst quarterback situation in the AFC South by a wide margin. No free agent acquisition on defense can offset Blake Bortles’ wavering confidence at quarterback.

Tennessee might be the most balanced team in the AFC South, but have not sniffed the playoffs in some time. Getting over the hump would be huge for the Titans, but that team went only 3-13 two years ago and 2-14 before that.

Add in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey into the mix and this could be the most interesting season in some time for this recovering city. It could serve as a galvanizing mechanism to bring the entire Houston community together. If the quarterback position is even marginally better than it was last year, Houston could find itself in its first AFC Championship or Super Bowl in franchise history.

Defense always travels well, no matter the road environment. Winning the turnover margin and in divisional play will be key for the Texans. Admittedly, this team gets overlooked a bit, but is slightly underrated in the hierarchy of the AFC.

Sleeping on the Texans would be a mistake. This is one of the few defenses that make prolific offenses like the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers uncomfortable. Houston is a good football team, but being a more balanced one could have them entering the pantheon of elite status.


One could say how this team plays in the wake of Hurricane Harvey is the ultimate x-factor. It is, but if we’re looking at one player on the field, that has to be the return of a healthy Watt. If he’s back to full strength, Houston will be getting back the best defensive talent with a huge chip on his shoulder.

Missing most of last season due to a back injury saw the rest of the Texans defense up the ante. Adding him back in the mix might make this the best team in football. Could we hold the 2017 Texans defense in the same light as the 2000 Ravens, the 2002 Buccaneers, the 2013 Seahawks, the 2015 Broncos, maybe even the 1985 Bears?

We’ll have to wait and see, but it is looking promising for the Texans on this side of the ball. Watt is the driving force behind this defense. As the signature player of the franchise and one of the biggest names in the sport, it would be great to see Watt win Defensive Player of the Year in 2017.

Best Case

Houston three-peats as AFC South champions. No, this is not another 9-7 division winner. Houston eclipses 10 wins, possibly as high as 11 or 12 depending on what they get out of either Savage or Watson at the quarterback position.

Watson eventually gets the nod over Savage in late September. From there, Houston goes on a tear winning six of eight and take back control of the AFC South, never relinquishing it. The confidence this team feels with Watson under center and with the whole city behind this team has Houston ready for anything that comes its way in the playoffs.

The Texans surprise many and get the No. 3 seed in the AFC. They win the wild card game easily against a team that is overwhelmed by the playoff atmosphere. Houston goes into Kansas City, Oakland or Pittsburgh and shocks the No. 2 seed to get to the AFC Championship. There, they stun the Patriots and reach the Super Bowl, only to fall to a superior team coming out of the NFC.

Worst Case

Sadly, the hurricane proves to be too much adversity for the football team to handle. An improved AFC South takes a few games away from Houston the Texans would have needed to win the division for a third time in a row.

Watt is not the same player he was pre-injury and the overall state of the defense regresses under Vrabel’s watch. Neither Savage or Watson command the huddle at quarterback. The Texans stay in the playoff mix until the final two weeks before being eliminated.

Houston finds itself with one of the 10 worst records in football. While the Texans would have loved to have had that top-10 pick, it now belongs to the Cleveland Browns, who Houston traded with to move up to draft Watson at No. 12 in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Final Word

This season could go any number of ways for the Texans. Defensively, this should be a playoff team, but its offense will likely drag the team down. Being able to win the many one-score games it will play in will be huge for this team. The more, the merrier.

Next: NFL Power Rankings: 30 Best Defenders of All-Time

Expect the Texans to hover around .500 this year. If Tennessee doesn’t command the division right out of the gate, Houston has the ability to hang around and win it for a third straight season. They might get a playoff win, maybe two, but the Texans do not have the offense to be a final four team just yet.