There's an old saying — organization and planning are the keys to finally improving on a 9-7 record. Actually, it's not old at all; I just made it up myself. However, it is true. Bill O'Brien and Rick Smith have some very clear things that are imperative to accomplish during the four weeks the Texans will spend in West Virginia and the two weeks they'll be back here in Houston before Week 1.
If we were helping the Texans brass put their collective to-do list together for training camp (which starts Wednesday!), it would look a little something like this:
1. Get this DeAndre Hopkins contract extension done (finally)
This time last season, Hopkins was preparing for his contractual protest, a holdout that lasted all of one day. Right now, on paper, he is scheduled to play the season on his fifth-year option of his rookie deal for around $8 million, but expectations are that he will sign a long-term extension before the start of the season. Typically, this is about the time that the Texans take care of former first-round picks. If you're targeting a specific timeframe to get this done, the week in between the preseason and Week 1 is a safe bet, and if you're targeting an amount, somewhere around $14 million per year and $40 million guaranteed feels like a decent bet.
2. Find a second (and third and fourth) reliable target after Hopkins
One Hopkins factoid that I wish weren't true — not only is he the most experienced wide receiver on the team (four seasons), but he has the same amount of NFL experience as the next three receivers on the roster combined. In fact, the only tight end or wide receiver on a non-rookie contract is Ryan Griffin, who just signed an extension this past offseason. With any hope, Will Fuller has been making love to a JUGS machine this offseason to improve his hands, and Braxton Miller now has a better idea of what it's going to take to succeed as a wide receiver/offensive weapon in the NFL. Tyler Ervin emerging as a reliable third down back would be a nice surprise as well.
3. Find reliable starters at three key positions — right tackle, outside linebacker and safety
At most of the spots where the Texans have penciled in starters, the players are significant plus-level players. The problem with the depth chart is the huge drop-off at most positions after the top-line guys, and the positions that are still open are not exactly "clash of the titan"-style position battles. At right tackle, it's last year's starter at the end of the season, Chris Clark (who was not good), formerly undrafted Kendall Lamm, fourth-round rookie Julien Davenport and journeyman Breno Giacomini. At safety, it's two former undrafteds (Corey Moore, Kurtis Drummond), a fifth-round 2018 rookie coming off a knee injury (K.J. Dillon), and a former Mr. Irrelevant who is always hurt (Lonnie Ballentine). Finally, at outside linebacker, it's undrafted 2016 rookie Brennan Scarlett and... um... Sio Moore? The point is, where the Texans are still searching for answers, there are not many (any?) inspiring choices.
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4. Keep J.J. Watt healthy
One of the things I'm most anxious to find out is exactly how much J.J. Watt is used during the preseason. Will he get a relatively full practice load? Will he work in the inter-squad practices with the Patriots and the Saints? How much, if at all, will he play in the preseason games? I would think you'd want to give him a little work in game situations just to test drive the lower back. I mean, if something bad were to happen because of normal football torque, you'd rather know in the preseason when you can still plan around it than find out in Week 1. All reports are Watt feels great, but until he is actually wrestling bears down in and down out, you just don't know.
5. Get special teams to a point where we at least feel optimistic about them
Here are the Texans' special teams rankings in Football Outsiders' DVOA in Bill O'Brien's three seasons — 28th, 32nd and 32nd. This is in spite of their having a future Hall of Fame punter and relatively consistent placekicking (at least since they cut Randy Bullock in 2015), which goes to show you just how awful the other aspects of special teams have been. Here's my biggest issue with special teams (aside from their stinking) — O'Brien has routinely cited about eight to ten guys as guys "who really help us on special teams" as a reason for their existence on the roster. Alfred Blue, Brian Peters, Jay Prosch, Don Jones, Max Bullough, Eddie Pleasant, Robert Nelson, Akeem Dent, Akeem Hunt, Tyler Ervin, Jonathan Grimes...these are all guys about whom O'Brien at some point last year brought up their prowess on special teams. (I realize a handful of these guys are gone now, but I'm making a point.) So if there were so many special teams aces, then how the heck are special teams so awful? The Texans need to upgrade the athleticism of the bottom 20 percent of the roster, and bag these "lunch pail" types that O'Brien so loves.
6. Get Deshaun Watson ready to play
Tom Savage is the starter...yeah, yeah, we've heard that over and over again. We've also heard, toward the end of OTAs, just how much further along Watson was than O'Brien expected. We will know early on just how competitive this situation is by observing the company Watson keeps in his reps and the frequency with which he is out there with frontline players. I can't think of a less accomplished passer than Savage to be labeled an "incumbent" heading into the season, which is why I think there is some smoke screening going on. You don't give up future first-round picks for a guy just to concede that he will be put on ice. O'Brien's side project needs to be assembling a Watson-friendly version of his full playbook to maximize the chances of him getting on the field and succeeding earlier rather than later.
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