Before the season, in this space and many other spaces, both written and auditory, I predicted a 10-6 season for the Texans in which they regain their title in the AFC South. So, mathematically, I'm looking pretty good at the season's halfway point. The Texans are 5-3, and they're leading the AFC South by a game and a half over the Tennessee Titans and two full games (with the head to head tiebreaker) over Jacksonville and Indianapolis.
You don't need to be a math major to figure that the Texans are on pace to go 10-6 and win the AFC South, which doesn't make me a genius, but it does show that I have my finger on the pulse of this thing. With that said, if you're asking me to take one side of ten wins the Texans will finish on — OVER or UNDER — I might take the OVER (assuming full participation for Deshaun Watson, since I know full HEALTH is probably too much to ask for).
The schedule lays out very nicely, with one remaining prime time game at home, a bye week before the Washington game (Redskins have the best record of any remaining opponent at 5-2), and all three remaining division games at home. Hell, the Texans even get an extra day off before the Eagles game (Jets game the week before is on a Saturday)!
Most importantly, the offensive line is improving and Deshaun Watson is healing. So let's rapid-fire some grades on the first half of the season. Keep in mind, these grades are for the eight-game body of work, so even if a group is trending in a certain direction, that is not factored into the grade. With that in mind, it probably makes sense to start with the offensive line....
We will start with the area that, up until two weeks ago, was the genesis of most of the ills this team was experiencing — Deshaun Watson's inconsistency, Deshaun Watson's shaky health, the inability to run the football, they all trace back to shoddy o-line play. Through six games, the line had allowed Watson to be hit 70 times on passing plays, 21 more than the next closest team. The last two games, though, have been encouraging, with the Texans running the football for 141 and 188 yards, respectively, and allowing only one hit on Watson in the last game against Miami. The first six games cannot be ignored. They were horrific, but the last two games at least pull them up to a passing grade. Hopefully, the improvement continues (or hopefully, Deshaun Watson's life insurance is up to date).
I like Ryan Griffin, he seems like a swell guy and a good teammate, and I would never wish "illness" (that was his injury listing the last two games) on anybody, but I've been excited to watch the two rookies, Jordan Akins and Jordan Thomas, the last couple games. They're the future, and both seem like they have a higher ceiling at pretty much everything than Griffin currently has. Six years in, this is who Griffin is, a decent pass catcher and below average blocker (and a "good guy, hard working guy, good teammate"). Thomas, in particular, I think has a chance to be a steal, coming from the sixth round of this past draft.
The only thing keeping this grade from being an A or A+ is health. DeAndre Hopkins is on pace for 106 catches, 1,578 yards, 12 touchdowns, and about 25 SportsCenter highlights. He is the best receiver in football. Will Fuller was on pace for a breakout season, but went down with an ACL injury, and Keke Coutee's debut was scintillating (11 catches against the Colts), but his damn hammies keep acting up. The body of work was great for eight games, but Fuller's injury may put a ceiling on this collective group, depending on what new acquisition Demaryius Thomas can bring to the table. .
God bless Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue, they're doing the most with what the good Lord gave them. Two straight 100-yard games have put Miller on pace for over 1,000 yards, and 4.5 yards per carry behind this line is to be commended. In fact, it's probably unfair for me to slap the "doing most with what the good Lord gave them" label on Miller. When healthy, and when blocked for properly, he's been a plus player. Blue has been Blue, 3.3 yards per carry, a cloud of dust, and someone who in still pictures (with no perspective on speed and elusiveness) looks like he should rush for 1,600 yards. Where for art thou, D'Onta Foreman?
Watson is on pace for over 4,300 yards passing, around 500 yards rushing, 30 touchdown passes, and 14 interceptions. Those are very solid numbers for a guy whose in his second season in the league, first FULL season. What bodes well for an even higher grade for the full season is two things — one, Watson is getting healthier (and the offensive line is playing better, fingers crossed), and two, he is playing smarter, with the ball (no turnovers in the last two games) and with his body. Honestly, the fewer rushing yards for Watson in the second half of the season, probably the better. One thing is undeniable — regardless of how a Sunday afternoon is going, in the end, Watson gives the Texans a chance to win in every game. (Now, please, bubble wrap him!)
J.J. Watt is back to damn close to his 2014/2015 levels, which has to feel like found money, to some extent, for Texans fans. His return has exceeded expectations. I count Clowney as part of the defensive line (even if he is listed as a linebacker, watch him, he does defensive line "stuff") and he's had a couple "best guy on the field" games over the last month. The rest of this group are big body grinders who defend the run very well, D.J. Reader and Brandon Dunn, in particular. Angelo Blackson's made some plays, too. Anthony Weaver is the leader in the clubhouse for the Alex Gibbs Assistant Coach of the Year Award (which doesn't exist, but should!).
Bernardrick McKinney overcame a slow start, and has begun justifying some of that hefty price tag he signed for this past off-season. Zach Cunningham has been spectacular, at times, but inconsistent tackling and in coverage, at other times. The injury to Dylan Cole hurts. Whitney Mercilus is flashing more over these last couple games, but they are certainly asking him to do much different stuff this season than in years past. Duke Ejiofor, like Jordan Thomas, is trending toward "sixth round steal" status.
This is the position group that has been most decimated by injuries, with Kevin Johsnon's overall future in peril (concussions), Aaron Colvin suffering a severe ankle injury, and a bunch of other nicks, sprains, and bruises (Shareece Wright, Johnathan Joseph). Hell, Kayvon Webster's season ended on his SECOND PLAY. This group has been fortified thanks to a career year from Kareem Jackson, and solid-to-spectacular safety play from Tyrann Mathieu and rookie Justin Reid.
The Texans have consistently ranked in the top five in the league in Football Outsiders' DVOA in special teams all season long. This might be Brian Gaine's most underrated accomplishment as general manager, so far — finding guys who OWN punt and kick coverage, embrace it, take pride in it, and most importantly, are GOOD AT IT. Brennan Scarlett, Peter Kalambayi, Buddy Howell are all names that come to mind. The return game could use some juice, I'm not sure Tyler Ervin is that guy, but the fact that special teams overall has been a positive in the field position battle is HUGE progress. Brad Seely is Weaver's main competition for assistant of the year.
Ka'imi Fairbairn has quietly become one of the more consistent kickers in the league, making all of his extra points, making every field goal attempt inside of 48 yards, and establishing the touchback as nearly an automatic on kickoffs. Trevor Daniel is good for one head shaking punt every couple weeks, but by and large, he's been very good, and the coverage teams have blended well with him. Jon Weeks is perfection, that is all.
We're only eight games into the careers of all these guys, so take this with a grain of salt, but this rookie class should have every Texans fan excited about next spring's draft, with Brian Gaine having a full complement of picks, as well as Seattle's second round pick. Justin Reid looks like he could be a star, Keke Coutee (WHEN HEALTHY) appears to get it, and Jordan Akins, Jordan Thomas, Duke Ejiofor, and Peter Kalambayi are all contributors. Even rookie waiver wire pickups Natrell Jamerson, A.J. Moore, and Buddy Howell have been out there on special teams performing. Really, really solid first group for Gaine, and that's with no first or second round pick.
In some way, the grade on a head coach should be the easiest one — at no other occupation (except MAYBE quarterback) does "you are what you're record is" resonate more than at head coach. So for all the slow starts, mental error penalties, and game management issues that plagued O'Brien and his staff during the team's 0-3 start (and let's be truthful, they were still there even during those first three wins, to some degree), O'Brien has skippered this team to five wins in a row. Thankfully, as the offensive coordinator, he has incorporated more of the elements the last few games that made the offense so explosive last season with Watson under center. Oddly, in an effort to help protect Watson early in the season, it appears O'Brien's dialing back the offense did the exact opposite. If the 0-3 start forced him to reevaluate, good for him adjusting. Now just keep doing things Deshaun likes!
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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