Texans Offseason Blueprint: Five Moves Needed to Become AFC Favorites
If Sunday's AFC championship proved anything, it's that the Texans with T.J. Yates were a legitimate threat to reach the Super Bowl.
The same Ravens that the Texans so thoroughly dominated in Baltimore one week earlier (save mostly-unforced turnovers) had the title in Lee Evans's grasp and on Billy Cundiff's foot.
Things went awry for the Ravens on both occasions, of course.
But as it pertains to the Texans, the result was quite encouraging. For only the second time this season, the high-flying Patriots lined up against an elite defense.
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Much like the first, when New England lost in Pittsburgh in October, Tom Brady proved human when countered by a strong pass rush and good secondary.
As it stands right now, the well-balanced Texans -- assuming the return of quarterback Matt Schaub -- could be considered the AFC favorite for 2012.
Here are five offseason moves that could turn that possibility into reality.
5.) Re-sign offensive linemen Chris Myers and Mike Brisiel. The foundation for the Texans remains their running game and offensive line, a point driven home by their physical manhandling of the vaunted Ravens defense in Baltimore. To do that, they must retain their center and right guard, both of whom could become free agents. When Brisiel was lost late in the season to a broken leg, there was a definite dropoff between him and replacement guard Antoine Caldwell. Myers, meanwhile, graded as the best center in the NFL by most scouting services and will make his first Pro Bowl appearance next weekend.
Part of the Texans' success up front comes from chemistry and continuity, with the five-man line mostly intact since the beginning of 2010. For it to continue into 2012, that needs to stay the case.
4.) Target cornerback in free agency. If the Texans have any money to spend, it needs to go to the cornerback position. That's the one position where it's difficult -- if not impossible -- for a rookie to have a significant positive impact. Veterans such as New Orleans's Tracy Porter and the Giants' Terrell Thomas would make for serviceable No. 2 cornerbacks if Wade Phillips thinks he needs an update from the sometimes-good, sometimes-bad combination of Kareem Jackson and Jason Allen.
3.) Let Mario Williams, Matt Leinart and Jacoby Jones go if the numbers aren't right. It would be particularly painful to watch Williams leave, given that his selection remains a defining moment of the Rick Smith/Gary Kubiak era. But it's part of NFL life that when younger and cheaper replacements are on the roster, like Yates and linebacker Brooks Reed, more expensive veterans are often shown the door. The Texans have needs at receiver and possibly cornerback to fill, and there's also Arian Foster's desire for a long-term, high-dollar contract before his deal's 2013 expiration.
If Williams is willing to fit his salary within those constraints -- or wait and see how much money the Texans have after addressing other concerns -- he'd certainly be welcomed back. But if he wants big money in a hurry come early March (when free agency opens), remember that the Texans showed they could flourish without him. That big money could better be spent at other positions.
2.) Replace Neil Rackers at kicker. This should be a no-brainer. Rackers was just 50% from between 40 and 49 yards this season and has a leg that seems to be weakening with age. It culminated with a 50-yard kick in Baltimore that came up short despite having the wind at his back. Rackers will be 36 when the 2012 season begins, and his declining range has begun to limit the Texans' offensive creativity, especially late in halves.
Jacksonville's Josh Scobee, a Texas native, will be on the market and has a monster leg, going 7-for-8 from 40-to-49 yards and 5-of-6 from 50 and beyond. He'd be a welcome addition to the Texans.
1.) Draft a receiver in the first round. While cornerback is a position that typically requires a free-agent signing to see immediate results, receiver can be the opposite. Rookie wideouts have had more and more NFL success in the past decade, and the Texans could have options such as Baylor's Kendall Wright and South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery available at their No. 26 selection.
Andre Johnson will be 31 and has become injury prone. Kevin Walter is 31, and despite reliable hands and superb blocking skills, struggles to create separation and would be better served as a number three slot receiver. Jones is too erratic to be trusted.
Veterans such as Reggie Wayne are available in free agency. But as discussed, veterans usually aren't worth the price tag when younger options are available -- which they should be at the Texans' pick. If Wayne or another vet wants to sign for cheap, that's one thing. Otherwise, the draft is where Texans should look to add their receiver of the future (and possibly present).
Honorable mention: Add a veteran defensive tackle. Some have speculated that Phillips's 3-4 would be better suited with a run-stuffing mammoth in the middle. But Shaun Cody held up much better than expected in 2011, and second-year prospect Earl Mitchell flashed some of the pass-rushing ability that made Jay Ratliff an ideal fit for Phillips's scheme in Dallas. It wouldn't be a shocker for the Texans to address the position, but it's not a top priority, either.
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