Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Houston Texans.
Injuries hit the majority of teams in the league this season, but it seemed like quarterbacks in particular fell victim the most. Carson Wentz is out while the Philadelphia Eagles are in the hunt for a Super Bowl appearance. Aaron Rodgers missed the second half of the year, which derailed the Green Bay Packers. Even middling teams like the Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts got nailed as well
But the Texans might have the argument for the most devastating. Deshaun Watson took over for Tom Savage midway through the first game of the year, and after starting slowly in his first two appearances, the rookie from Clemson had a brilliant five-game stretch where he threw for a combined 1,472 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Sure, throwing 8 interceptions wasn’t the best, but Watson was steadily improving each week, which had many Texans fans excited for both the future and the rest of 2017. Then the unthinkable happened. Watson suffered a torn ACL on a non-contact play in practice of all places, prematurely ending his season, as well as the Texans hopes for the playoffs. After starting 3-3 under Watson, they went 1-9 the rest of the way.
Watson wasn’t the only player to get hurt. Defensive stalwarts J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus also went down early, and injuries on the offensive line caused major problems as well. The unit as a whole allowed 54 sacks. Savage did his best, but the Texans had no chance with all the losses.
Maybe that’s why Bill O’Brien was kept as head coach. Rumors circulated about his job security, but general manager Rick Smith was the one to leave, albeit due to a leave of absence in order to take care of his breast-cancer-stricken wife. Defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel also departed to become the Tennessee Titans head coach, though assistant head coach Romeo Crennel will return to his old position as a replacement.
Regardless, new GM Brian Gaine will have his work cut out for him. The Texans enter the offseason in a peculiar position, with no draft picks in the first two rounds (they were sent to the Cleveland Browns in order to draft Watson). However, unlike other teams picking high, they’re secure at QB, provided that Watson is at full health.
With all that in mind, the Texans have to be smart with their free agent moves. There are plenty of holes to fill across the roster, but the team isn’t without hope for 2018. They’ll just have to fend off the injury bug.
Current number of draft picks: 8 (none in the first round)
Cap space: $53-57 million
Notable free agents
Johnathan Joseph, CB: Joseph has been in the NFL since 2006 and has always played consistently well at corner. This year was no different; he was second on the team in interceptions and pass breakups with 2 and 9, respectively. While there are a number of options in free agency to bolster the secondary, the Texans should think about bringing Joseph back to pair him with whoever they sign.
Marcus Gilchrist, S: Since entering the league in 2011, Gilchrist has been a generally reliable player at safety. The New York Jets dumped him after using their first two draft picks on safeties last April, so he had to take a one-year prove-it deal with the Texans.
He did fairly well, picking up 56 total tackles and an interception while appearing in every game this season. The Texans have a ton of other players at safety though, so he won’t be high on the must-resign list.
Shane Lechler, P: One of the oldest players in the league, with his first season being in at the beginning of this millennium, Lechler performed like a punter in his prime this season, ranking in the top five of all the major punting categories. Finding a truly great punter isn’t easy, but how much time does Lechler have left?
T: Left tackle Duane Brown‘s holdout and subsequent trade to the Seattle Seahawks was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the problems on the Texans offensive line. Right tackle Derek Newton tore both of his patellar tendons last season and subsequently missed all of 2017. Even if he can return, he may never be the same player again.
Chris Clark and Breno Giacomini consequently manned the tackle positions and weren’t particularly effective, ranking among the lowest in Pro Football Focus’ grades for the position. They’re both free agents anyhow. With no first round pick and a limited free agent pool, however, the Texans don’t have a lot of options.
CB: The Texans cornerbacks took a major step back in 2017, allowing nearly 3,800 passing yards. The defense, ranked 2nd against the pass and 1st overall in 2016, fell to 24th and 20th, respectively. Joseph was the only consistent player, and he’s a 33-year-old free agent.
G: Since signing with the team in 2016, Jeff Allen has gone from one of the better guards in football to a mediocre one. The other starter, Xavier Su’a-Filo, hasn’t done much since getting drafted with the first pick in the 2nd round of the 2014 draft. He’s also a free agent.
RB: Lamar Miller has been pretty solid during his tenure with the Texans, but he and D’Onta Foreman will be the only two running backs on the roster when free agency begins. Foreman underperformed in his rookie season, so another option in the backfield should be considered.
QB: Watson is obviously safe at signal caller, but both Savage and T.J. Yates are free agents. A steady backup is needed in case Watson gets injured again.
P: Lechler is one of the greatest punters of all-time, but he’s a free agent who will turn 42 before the start of next season. If he moves on, a replacement will be required.
Best player/building block
DeAndre Hopkins, WR: In spite of all the turmoil at QB this season, Hopkins continued to perform like his usual elite self. He led the league in touchdown catches with 13 while also finishing in the top 10 in receptions and receiving yards. Hopkins is locked up through 2022, so he and Watson will have plenty of time to develop an even better rapport in the passing game.
Zach Cunningham, ILB: The Texans didn’t have many players that flew under the radar in 2017, but Cunningham came the closest. The second-round rookie from Vanderbilt had 82 total tackles, second on the team. He was pretty solid in coverage as well, deflecting 6 passes. Although Cunningham got snubbed from the all-rookie team, he and Benardrick McKinney look like a dependable duo at inside linebacker.
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
NFC East: New York Giants