Of the six seasons where Bill O'Brien has been at the helm of the Houston Texans, the 2019 season is the one where we are heading into the season opener with the most intrigue, which is definitely saying something when you consider the following:
* In 2014, it was O'Brien's first season as head coach, taking over a team that went 2-14 the year before, and there was the little matter of a debuting No. 1 overall pick, Jadeveon Clowney.
* In 2015, we were coming off of five weeks of intense Hard Knocks coverage on HBO, and the likelihood that, at any moment, Ryan Mallett could oversleep or do something to torpedo the season.
* In 2016, there was Brock Osweiler. Need I say more?
* In 2017, there was a rookie quarterback named Deshaun Watson waiting to take over for Tom Savage — that took all of 30 minutes of football to happen — and the city was just days removed from Hurricane Harvey.
* In 2018, Deshaun Watson was taking over for good, but coming off injury, as was J.J. Watt. Also, the debut of the Honey Badger!
Those are five pretty noteworthy opening acts to a season, and yet this one trumps all of those. For starters, the team is being run without a general manager right now, which has theoretically increased Bill O'Brien's workload, and yet he is the calmest we've seen him in six seasons. From there, the Texans are trying to implement multiple new pieces, including a starting left tackle and a starting tailback, neither of whom have taken a snap as a Texan, in the preseason or regular season. Hell, to my knowledge, Laremy Tunsil has never even worn pads as a Texan! And he will be starting at left tackle (which is fine, because he is awesome... more on that in a moment).
Finally, of the six season openers of the O'Brien Era, this is easily the one with the most juice. From 2014 through 2017, the Texans opened at home against Washington, Kansas City, Chicago, and Jacksonville. Last season was pretty juicy, a road game in New England. This one, though, is in New Orleans, in prime time, on a Monday night, just a few months removed from the Saints getting jobbed out of a Super Bowl trip so badly by the refs that the league changed the replay review rules because of it.
So let's dig into a few of the storylines for tonight's opener.....
4. DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller vs Saints secondary
There is no doubt that the Texans offense runs differently when Will Fuller is healthy. How differently does it run? How about these numbers.....
If there is an Achilles heel with this New Orleans team, a pretty strong roster from top to bottom, it's their secondary, where their top three cornerbacks all ranked among the bottom 15 in football in yards allowed per coverage snap. The Texans' wide receivers, including the newly acquired Kenny Stills, should eat against these Saints cornerbacks. Especially because....
3. Deshaun Watson in prime time is money
If you're going into a gun fight, best to go in with an uzi and not a butter knife. If you're going to go into the league's toughest prime time atmosphere, best to go in there with Deshaun Watson and not [fill in name of any other Texans starting QB ever]. How about these numbers?
We know Watson's been a big game quarterback going back to the two national title games against Alabama. That clutch gene has translated just fine at the NFL level, last year's playoff loss against the Colts notwithstanding. This will be the first of what will probably be several shootouts involving the Texans this season, and if you're gonna need 35 points to win most of your games, best to have Deshaun Watson pulling the trigger. Watson at 25/1 to win league MVP (his odds as of Friday afternoon) is VERY good value. A big reason why is this guy.....
2. Laremy Tunsil
Finally, after a long two year nightmare — two years that felt like ten years — with names like Chris Clark, Julien Davenport, and Kendall Lamm, the Texans finally have a real left tackle. Not just a real left tackle, but one of the best left tackles in football. It cost more than an arm and a leg — two first round picks and a second round pick is complete dismemberment. However, for 2019, it's well worth it. This trade is a trade for not just a left tackle, but a fully activated and deployed Deshaun Watson, who can now operate with some semblance of order in the pocket. Also, here is Laremy Tunsil after Thursday's practice. I defy you to come away from this doing anything but loving this young man....
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Was I right? I am smitten with Laremy Tunsil.
1. J.J. Watt
Man, talk about circle of life. In 2014, we were promised a new nuclear bomb of a defense with J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney supposedly teaming up to pulverize quarterbacks for the next ten years. Watt was great for two years, while Clowney was injured. Then Watt basically disappeared for two years with horrific football injuries, while Clowney rose to prominence. 2018 finally paid off, for the most part, on the promise, but now Clowney is gone, and we are right back where we started in 2014, with a defense relying on Watt to be other worldly in order to compete at a level the fans expect. This should be a better supporting cast for Watt in 2019 than he had in his near MVP season of 2014, with safety play light years better, Whitney Mercilus rejuvenated, and inside linebacker play that is very, very good. Cornerback is the concern, so Watt's ability to be great (probably amidst a sea of double teams) will be crucial, not just tonight, but throughout the season.
PREDICTION: Saints 35, Texans 31