Evolution or Revolution is a series that analyzes whether a team needs a few tweaks or a fundamental reboot.
Unfortunately for Houston Texans fans, their team’s offseason has been more newsworthy than their performances on the field over the past year.
The Texans stunningly traded All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins last March and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt departed this year.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson asked to be traded in January before things got worse when nearly two dozen women filed civil lawsuits against the 25-year-old star alleging inappropriate conduct and sexual assault. The Texans have added veteran Tyrod Taylor with Watson facing a possible suspension from the NFL, which is investigating the matter.
Houston’s on-field struggles last year eventually led to the firing of head coach Bill O’Brien and the hiring of David Culley. The team plummeted to 4-12 in 2020, a result that accurately depicted the overall direction of the franchise.
Hopkins had been Houston’s leading receiver in each of the five seasons prior to his departure, including 104 catches for 1,165 yards and seven touchdowns in 2019.
Will Fuller, second on that list with 49 receptions, was the obvious candidate to step up and he had 53 catches for 879 yards and eight touchdowns in 11 games before being handed a six-game suspension – one week of which remains – for breaching the NFL’s drug policy.
But now Fuller won’t be back after signing a one-year contract with the Miami Dolphins. And the Texans are down to Brandin Cooks, who had team highs of 81 receptions and 1,150 yards, and Randall Cobb, who started only two games before missing the end of the year due to a toe injury.
David Johnson, acquired in the Hopkins trade, failed to make a substantial impact on the ground with 691 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games. Houston ranked 31st in rushing yards per game (91.6), 26th in rushing plays of 10 yards or more (38) and tied for 30th in plays of 20 yards or more (five).
Still, Watson remained one of the league’s best QBs despite losing Hopkins, having no run game to turn to and playing behind a bad offensive line. He was sacked 49 times, but topped the NFL in passing yards (4,823), yards per attempt (8.87) and big plays of 25 yards or more (42) and finished second in passer rating (112.4).
Watson was also fourth in the league behind Alex Smith (2.1), Tom Brady (2.2) and Aaron Rodgers (2.2) with a 2.3 pickable pass percentage (NFL average: 4.0).
The Texans have already dealt away a couple of their key opportunities to get better through this draft. In August 2019, they traded a 2020 first-round pick, a 2021 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round selection as part of a package to acquire Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills.
Tunsil, though, should be a bright spot up front. He’s fifth overall in our 2021 projected offensive lineman rankings at 9.13% better than the league average. The rankings are based on combined run block and pass protection data over the past three seasons.
Watson or no Watson, the Texans aren’t likely to be better in 2021 unless they can improve defensively.
They ranked 30th in opponent yards per game (416.8) and per play (6.24) and finished dead last in rushing yards allowed per game (160.3). The team’s failure to stop opponents on the ground could be attributed to D.J. Reader’s departure in free agency and a shoulder injury to Benardrick McKinney that limited him to four games and 19 tackles.
At the same time, the Texans were 24th in passing yards allowed per game (256.5). Whitney Mercilus and Watt were each another year older and their numbers declined as a result, although the latter still led the team in sacks (5.0), QB hits (17) and defensive TDs (one). Watt was also exceptional against the run, leading all edge rushers with a run disruption rate of 21.5 (NFL average: 10.7).
And so with Watt’s exit, the defense continues to lose talent just as it has in years past with Jadeveon Clowney and Tyrann Mathieu, both of whom left after a 2018 season in which Houston finished 11-5 and had six Pro Bowlers – including three on defense.
With a roster full of holes, the departure of franchise legend in Watt and a suddenly uncertain situation at QB, the Texans are in an unenviable position of their own making.
They’ve made a ton of moves since general manager Nick Caserio took over on Jan. 5 with much of them focused on re-imagining the running game and defense after Lovie Smith was brought in to run his 4-3 Tampa 2 scheme.
In addition to bringing in Taylor, Houston also traded for Ryan Finley to add yet another option at quarterback. Because they might not be able to rely on Watson being available, the team also sought to bolster the running game by adding Phillip Lindsay and Mark Ingram.
Of course, none of that will matter unless something changes defensively. The team did bring back cornerback Bradley Roby and signed former Los Angeles Chargers corner Desmond King to a one-year, $3.5 million deal. Houston also acquired linebackers Shaq Lawson and Christian Kirksey and defensive tackle Maliek Collins.
The Texans won’t have a first- or second-round pick in Thursday’s draft as a result of the Tunsil trade, but they could add another defensive player in Round 3.
However, it’s the dark cloud that hangs over the most important position on the field that haunts the Texans. Who will be their starting quarterback in Week 1? Will they ultimately decided to trade Watson for draft picks in an effort to accelerate their rebuild?
All that remains to be seen. And Houston is likely to be headed for another trying season.
Design by Matt Sisneros.