Houston Texans:The time is now

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The 2016 NFL season is here, and with that brings a new and (hopefully) improved Houston Texans squad.

In the off-season, Head Coach Bill O’Brien heavily bulked up the offense during the 2016 NFL Draft, drafting and subsequently signing 4 out of 6 offensive positions (primarily WR/RB, and a necessary C to replace defector dearly departed Ben Jones) to add speed and versatility to a Texans offense that has struggled for years. The primary struggles were an ineffective QB, combined with a nearly non-existent passing game, and littered with constant running game injury. To summarize, the Texans offense has been largely one-dimensional, over-utilizing either/or since 2013.

In the pre-season, fans were dazzled (at times) with a promising starting QB with Brock Osweiler, a prolific WR corps, as well as some surprising TE production on offense, but very little showing for the running game.  Special teams came out and showed some notable structure and improvement, with a huge nod to new ST coach Larry Izzo. We also saw some intermittent struggles with the once-again heavily limping offensive line, as well as some customary missed blocked and tackles in the defense secondary. Most of this tightened up with each preseason game, and necessary cuts were made all around.

This had both fans and beat writers at odds with the new squad, wondering if we are going to face another year with a largely one-dimensional offense. Passing plays and attempts were made nearly 2-1 versus running, which made the RB corps seems slightly anemic. However, we can calm those fears by simply looking at all the roster moves in the off-season. The first, and biggest, news is signing Lamar Miller in the free agency. He’s an outstanding all around RB, who was brought in to replace Arian Foster. He wasn’t utilized much in the preseason because his history in the NFL speaks for itself.

This left primarily seasoned RBs and a single drafted rookie RB to compete for the 53. Among those were seasoned vets Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes, who essentially had to maintain their performance from previous years, 2nd season players Kenny Hilliard and Akeem Hunt, who had to show necessary improvements to justify a spot on the squad, and newly drafted rookie Tyler Ervin, who was specifically brought in for his speed and depth on both offense and special teams. What this translates to is 2 players trying out, and 1 player justifying why he was drafted.

On the other end, the Texans brought in 2 WRs in the draft, signed an additional 4 undrafted free agents, with 5 WRs already signed to compete for 5 spots on the roster, or a place on the practice squad. Additionally, an undrafted free agent TE was brought in, and specific priority was given to the TE corps which has been perpetually anemic since the loss of Owen Daniels in 2013 to see if O’Brien’s eventual goal to heavily utilize TEs could start coming to fruition. This still has yet to be seen, but undrafted FA Stephen Anderson has already made a name for himself among the Texans TEs.

Will this be enough to give the Texans a legitimate run this season? Only time and the upcoming season will tell. One notable deficiency and area of concern heading into the season is the offensive line. 2nd round draft pick C Nick Martin, who was penciled in as starter as soon as his draft number was called, suffered a season-ending ankle injury and underwent surgery to repair a high ankle sprain was a big blow to the line.  Additionally, T Duane Brown and Derek Newton’s injuries brought on a patchwork o-line in the preseason that struggled to hold a pocket for Osweiler at times.

The good news (I guess) is that Derek Newton is slated to start in the season opener, and Duane Brown has been put on the active roster, meaning that while there has been no timetable set for return, it’s likely that Brown will return within the first 3-4 games since the front office didn’t find it necessary to put him on the PUP list (which would mean 6 weeks, at minimum). Other good news is the return of DE JJ Watt. While it’s unknown how limited Watt will be, he is slated to start in the season opener as well, after an offseason in which basically Watt’s entire lower half was reconstructed.

With the free agency signings, draft picks, current news with injury, along with the preseason performance of a newly-enhanced offense, the Vegas odds for the Texans to reach the Super Bowl have jumped from 40-1 in April to 16-1 in September.  This was the biggest offseason jump for any team considered to be a legitimate contender moving into the 2016-17 season. That’s promising. Looking at the season opener with a Chicago Bears squad that didn’t do much to bolster their roster in the offseason, analysts have pretty much unanimously given favor to the Texans.

My opinion is we should go with that, cast all doubt and worry aside, and let the team prove the hype. Osweiler has something to prove, and he showed us this in the preseason. Hopkins, Fuller, and Braxton Miller are ready to show the kind of versatile threat we want them to be. Lamar Miller is itching to have his breakout season.Special teams is streamlined and disciplined, and ready to be a productive side on the field, and the whole of the defense is ready to rank back up as a top 3 defense. I think they will. So, sit back, buckle up, and let’s all get ready for some football!

Houston Texans: Eight days away

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The 2016 NFL Draft is just 8 days out, and the FA moves before the draft are pretty much done, as far as the Texans are concerned. The latest move was to release QB Brian Hoyer, who was set to make $4 million in 2016. The move to remove Hoyer from the roster wasn’t a surprise, but the move to cut him instead of trading him had some people confused. Why not try to get something for the guy, even it if would be nothing more than another draft pick?  In short, because it wasn’t worth keeping him for a 6th or 7th round pick in 2017.

A lengthy discussion could point out the current situation in the QB free agency, with 2-3 QBs still waiting for signings, and the simple fact that these potential signings have stalemated any trades or deals for QBs in the current FA. The bottleneck is occurring between the San Francisco 49ers an the Denver Broncos, with not even free agent but likely to be traded Colin Kaepernick, and the reticence of either team to pick up the remaining value of Kaepernick’s contract.

Both teams hope to resolve this before the draft, but the whole situation is creating a real issue with other QBs left in limbo right now. What that means it the Texans holding onto Hoyer and tying up cap space that may be needed in the direct aftermath of the draft. Is all that worth the possibility of an additional 6th or 7th round pick in the coming years? Do the Texans really need to get caught up by the unneccessary stalemate that the 49ers and Broncos are willfully causing, over $4 million?

No. No they do not.

You have to look at the fact that every team knew Hoyer would be released, with the signing of Osweiler and the re-signing of FA Brandon Weeden, with Tom Savage still being on the roster at a much cheaper price than Hoyer. Potentially higher tier QBs like Kaepernick and even Fitzpatrick are still available and in limbo because of contract/trade negotiations, which means Hoyer would certainly take a back seat, possibly for months. And, knowing that Hoyer would eventually be released, there isn’t a team out there that would give a favorable trade to the Texans.

You can also look at the recent draft pick trades that have occurred with the top 2 picks. Last week, the Titans traded the #1 overall pick to the Rams for a quite ridiculous number of picks for this year’s draft alone. The Rams want a QB, and want the first pick. Today, the Browns and Eagles announced a trade of the #2 overall pick, with the Eagles coughing up a heavy number of picks, presumably for the 2nd choice of QB in the draft. The Eagles, who just spent $35 million over the next 2 years on 2 QBs. Head-scratching.

Instantly, you have 2 teams that are bowing out of the QB tussle in the FA, which leaves even fewer teams to negotiate and haggle with, when trying to dump a 2nd rate likely career back-up QB for any kind of return woth noting. That’s not to say that these trades shore up all the QB needs in the NFL, but it does lead to the notion that the little value that Hoyer may possess has diminished down to nothing. The money that was freed up in the salary cap is more valuable than a later draft pick in the next couple of years.

Now that he’s released, there may be some additional movement in unclogging that bottleneck of QB movement in the FA. He’s already visited with the Jets, and is set to visit with the Broncos. Whether either team is serious about the visit is debatable, but it could help both teams in their own negotiations with both Kaepernick and Fitzpatrick. All I can say is that I’m glad the cut’s been made ,so the Texans don’t have this hanging over their heads entering into the Draft. We should all be happy about that.

Another player waived by the Texans was BJ Daniels, the QB/WR picked up from the Seattle Seahawks practice squad last year when both Hoyer and Yates were out with injuries. Daniels would be an interesting prospect to try out at WR, as he was in transition to WR in the Seattle Seahawks practice squad camp. I’m surprised he wouldn’t at least make it through some work outs to see the potetial before being released. Certainly he wouldn’t be kept around as a back-up QB, but it would be worth it to test his wings at WR.

Since that’s out of the way, the Texans have the next 8 days to focus on the 2016 Draft. This means evaluating their needs, picks, and back up plans. This also means evaluating the trades that are happening with other teams, and lining up similar needs to make the optimal choices for the team in 2016. This means days of non-stop evaluations for every single player in the positions they are looking for, whether they have made visits or not. It also means evaluating draft day trading scenarios based on the trend of the draft.

The Texans have always placed the priority of talent available in each round rather than order of need. That has paid off in the first round, given the Texans are the only team in the NFL to still have every 1st round pick on the roster since 2008. The 3-4 round picks have been less-than-consistent, however, with more bombs than stars. Remarkably, however, the Texans have pulled off some decent later round and unsigned FA draft picks, which almost balances it out.

There’s no question that the surest talent resides in the top 2 and 1/2 rounds, however, and the Texans have 2 picks in this stretch. The Texans draft picks currently fall in the following order: 22nd, 52nd, 85th, 119th, 159th, 166th, and 195th. That’s one each in every round, and an additional pick in the 5th round. The downside of the Texans hesitancy to get into top pick trades means that the Texans will always have the minimum number of top picks in each draft.

That’s not really a bad thing, though. All in all, the draft is a gamble. If it pays, then you’re a genius. If it doesn’t, then you’re a moron. The Texans have always been rather conservative in the draft, with bold moves going toward amazing talent potential over need. I see this trend continuing, especially with the bold FA moves that have happened. I’d rather the bold moves happen in the FA, too, since those moves are based on proof. Some may argue that Osweiler’s deal isn’t, but there’s more proof he can make it than any of the QBs in the draft.

I’d still like to see a veteran DE picked up to plug the hole Crick left behind. I’d also like to see Owen Daniels come back to Houston one more year, as the team could definitely use an upgrade and shake-up in the TE corps. The talk of Andre Johnson retiring as a Texan is a nice pipe dream, but I don’t see a humbled Johnson agreeing to that for more than a ceremonial 1 day contract (if even that, considering his feels toward the team’s decsision on his playing time last year). I expect no more pre-Draft movement, though.

So, sit tight, y’all, because it’s a waiting game til the 28th.

 

Houston Texans: Loose ends and 2016 Draft

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Now that the excitement has died down from the explosive first day of the Texans free agency, it’s time to settle down and look at where the team stands, which FA signings may still be necessary, and what to look forward to in the draft.

Going into the free agency, the top needs for the team were primarily offensive players; Quarterback, Running Back, Guard, Center, and Tackle. Other primary concerns on offense were Wide Receiver, and possibly an upgrade at Tight End. Defense needs, while relatively solid as it stands, needed to upgrade at Safety, Defensive End, possible add some speed to Cornerback and look to the future for Inside Linebacker.

Three solid (and possibly four) needs have been checked off the list: QB, RB, G, and possibly C. Texans also signed former Jets Safety Antonio Allen – while that’s not exactly a big upgrade at S, it plugged in a hole that still is lacking for the team, with Rahim Moore being cut before the FA, as well as Quentin Demps moving into the FA. It’s possible Demps may be re-signed before the draft, but Allen’s signing make that implausible.  If Demps comes back, it’s because the Texans couldn’t find what they want in the draft.

Texans also re-signed Jonathan Grimes, which is a slight surprise given the stalemate and no tender before hitting the FA. He’s a good addition to 2016’s pretty solid RB team, to be led by Lamar Miller. Fullback Jay Prosch, a key member on special teams, and valuable blocker to clear up lanes for the RBs. It’s kind of interesting that Prosch actually wasn’t utilized a bit more in 2015, considering the combined injuries and deficiencies of RB and O-line. He should get a bigger role in 2016.

Cornerback A.J. Bouye also re-signed with the Texans in the past week, which keeps a pretty solid CB team, although still lacking a bit of speed and skill. Texans have been in a perpetual need to add weapons on secondary, and the CBs are shaping up to be just what they need. It’s a relatively young crew, led by Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson – both, at times, explosive players, but the latter of the two needs to trim down the penalties.

Interesting to note, before heading into loose ends and further potential FA signings, is that David Quessenberry has quietly moved onto the 2016 Texans active roster.  Let’s hope that’s good news for Quessenberry, and that he finally gets to participate in these reindeer games. Quessenberry, as previously noted, came in and made a case in 2013 for a future starting position at T or G. He’s still got an uphill battle after 3 inactive seasons, but he could very well be a huge asset to the Texans O-Line in 2016.

The FA is far from over, but the signings, at least for the Texans, have trickled down to a slow drip. I wouldn’t expect much more action before the draft, although a big question is whether or not Jared Crick is brought back on at DE. DE is an upgrade needed, even with Crick, but without his re-signing, that leaves DE pretty bare on the weak side (cough, Clowney, cough). But, seriously, Pagan moves up to the top spot currently, with no back-up. Additionally, I’m not certain Demps is going to be back at S.

So, current top needs for the Texans heading into the draft are WR, DE, T, SS, TE, ILB, and C.

I’m placing C at the end primarily due to the fact that Bergstrom is currently penciled in at C, but has more playing time at G. At TE, I’m simply not impressed with what’s on the Texans current roster. O’Brien wants that position strongly utilized, so there’s going to be a need to bulk up the TE position. Currently, top dog Ryan Griffin and C. J. Fiedorowicz are the only 2 TEs coming back with substantial game time, with Anthony Denham and Eric Tomlinson, neither who have seen the field, heading up the back.

Seven needs on the team, and seven picks in the draft. Could the Texans be so brilliant in the 2016 draft to form what could be the most well-rounded team in franchise history? I seriously doubt it. Nobody’s that good. However, Texans don’t need to be brilliant in the draft to get there. A few solid picks will do, and we’ll take a look at each position in the coming weeks. With less than a month to go til the 2016 draft, the Texans are on the clock.

Houston Texans: Free Agency

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The Texans had a hefty to-do list coming into the new season, including re-signing some free agents from the 2015 squad, as well as evaluating potential veteran talent to add to the roster. Earlier in the year, I discussed my hopes that the Texans would go big and bold in the free agency, something they’ve rarely done in the past. A lot of moves the team has made in the free agency have been to pick up older “mentor” veterans of the game. Most of the time, the Texans play it conservative and stick to retaining talent on the roster.

Before the free agency period, the Texans had some inevitable cuts to make. The first cut, and biggest loss, was RB Arian Foster. Foster’s given the Texans the best years of his career, and a healthy Foster could have possibly stayed on the roster. Unfortunately, even his successful years have been plagued with injury, and at the time of his release, he still wasn’t healthy. Cuts like Foster’s remind us all that above all else, the NFL is a business, and sometimes it’s not personal.

Also cut were TE Garrett Graham, and S Rahim Moore. Graham, drafted in the 4th round in 2010, showed some promise as a starter in 2012, and was one of the few shining players in the 2013 season. He was re-signed in 2014, but quickly dropped off the shelf. Moore was a S signed as a FA out of Denver, who did not pursue him. Moore’s was a questionable signing, but he could hit hard. However, he lasted just over half the season as a starter before being benched. One year was more than enough for him.

Rumors swirled around in the past week  as the FA approached; about Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Brock Osweiler as possible signings at QB, Chris Ivory, Lamar Miller, Doug Martin as rumored RBs on the radar, the need to keep Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks, and little to no actual movement. Well, technically the free agency didn’t open up til Wednesday, March 9, at 3 pm Texans time, but the “legal tampering” period, as they call it, was producing some unofficial signings and commitments.

Throughout the week, the Texans secured contracts with a few of their own FAs and negotiated with others. Among the signings were T/G Jeff Adams, T Chris Clark, SS Eddie Pleasant, CB Charles James, P Shane Lechler, and K Nick Novak. Two restricted FAs LB Jon Simon and LB A.J. Bouye were tendered, and restricted FA RB Jonathan Grimes and the Texans could not reach a deal, thus Grimes would go into the free agency as an unrestricted FA.

As Tuesday drew to an end, C Ben Jones, one of the top priority signings, unofficially hammered a deal out with the Tennessee Titans, so he would be lost. As Wednesday rolled around, G Brandon Brooks, another top priority, reached an agreement with the Philadelphia Eagles, and he’d be lost in the FA. These were two starters on the offensive line, and two of the most consistent staples on the Texans offensive line. Both were rather unexpected departures, and fans began to worry.

However, just as soon as brows began to furrow the Texans struck, and they hit hard. QB Brock Osweiler was stolen from the Denver Broncos, and signed to a franchise QB-sized contract – 4 years, $72 million. Soon after, Miami Dolphins RB Lamar Miller followed suit, with a 4 year, $26 million contract. Losing Brooks still hurt a little, until a third big signing, Kansas City Chiefs G Jeff Allen inked a 4 year, $28 million offer. Also signed was Raiders G/C Tony Bergstrom, contract details still unknown.

In a matter of half an hour, the Texans plugged in 2 lost FA holes, and knocked out their two biggest priorities. Texans, for the first time in several years, went big in the FA, and strengthened their offense by unknown depths. There’s no argument that the offense improved on the first day of the 2016 NFL season, but how much is the big question. We’ll go over each signing in the next day or two, and add anything else that comes to fruition, although the monumental day will likely be the biggest show of the FA.

With that, we also said goodbye to some Texans FAs not offered a new contract. Those include QB Brandon Weeden, QB T.J. Yates, RB Chris Polk, RB Jonathan Grimes, WR Nate Washington, DE Jared Crick, and SS Quintin Demps. Also available without tender are restricted FA LB Justin Tuggle, and restricted FA CB Darryl Morris. Exclusive rights FAs are WR Josh Lenz, DE Brandon Dunn, and FS Corey Moore. A few more moves may be made, and a few more may be lost. Time will tell in the coming days.

One thing’s for sure: The Texans 2016 season is off to a great start.