The countdown is on—you can almost smell the football in the air. Minicamps are over, as are OTA's, and soon (Monday, to be exact) rookies will report for training camp. A week later, the veterans will all report. There will be a slight adjustment for many of us who became addicted to the voyeuristic coverage we got last season with Hard Knocks, but that's our problem.
As for the Texans' roster, the hay is pretty much in the barn on the 90 men who will take to the field in about ten days for the first training camp practices. There may be a tweak here, and a tweak there between now and then, to wit the signing of Ra'Zahn Howard after the supplemental draft this week. For now, though, let's assess the Texans' roster composition and talent level, or as the late, great Beano Cook would say (in that distinct Pittsburgh accent) "Let's look at their MATERIAL."
One way to do this is to check the recent unit rankings on Pro Football Focus, the very polarizing website that has analysts evaluate every player on every down of football throughout the season. As best I can tell, there is nearly universal respect for the amount of work the PFF folks put in, but far from a consensus on the actual evaluations themselves.
Regardless, these rankings give us a good jumping-off point to see exactly where the Texans are today as compared to the rest of the league. And here's a funny thing... the news is mostly good! And if Brock Osweiler can just be competent at quarterback, the sky would appear to be the limit!
So let's start there, at QB, and go through the six primary position groups (with my comments or counterpoints preceded by "SP:") before going through the summary rankings (as compiled by ME!) at the bottom of this post...
28. Houston Texans
Starter: Brock Osweiler
Backup: Tom Savage
Key stat: Osweiler’s career is only 642 snaps old, and he was just handed $37 million guaranteed.
Maybe Brock Osweiler justifies the faith the Texans have in him and hits heights this season that he hasn’t yet shown, and if that happens, Houston will be far better than this ranking, but at the moment, they are turning the keys over to a QB that has seven starts to his name and got benched for a QB that finished the year as PFF’s 32nd-ranked signal-caller. Under pressure, his passer rating dropped almost thirty points, and his completion percentage fell by 14.3 percent. Osweiler has physical talents, but he is almost entirely unproven, having been very average over his seven starts.
SP: It's no secret that Pro Football Focus views Brock Osweiler the same way Simon Cowell viewed about 95 percent of the American Idol tryout contestants — with sheer and massive disgust. The points they raise are actually somewhat valid about performance "under pressure," and it's fair to wonder if he would have been as easy a sell to Texans fans if his record were, say, 3-4 instead of 5-2 in those seven starts last season. Frankly, his stats look more like 3-4 than 5-2, but he had an historically good defense to help him out. The Texans didn't have a ton of great alternatives, and O'Brien should max out Osweiler's true talent level, but this position is a mystery. That said, 28th feels almost vindictive, like Osweiler slept with Sam Monson's girlfriend or something.
9. Houston Texans
Starter: Lamar Miller
Backups: Alfred Blue, Tyler Ervin
Key stat: Lamar Miller’s 2.76 yards after contact per attempt were 11th-best in the NFL last season.
Lamar Miller has to be one of the happiest men on the planet going from Miami to Houston. The Dolphins were the lowest-graded run-blocking team each of the past two seasons, and game after game we saw them treat Miller as an afterthought in that offense. With the Texans, he should be the undisputed feature back, and could end up even higher than his sixth-overall rushing-grade rank from a year ago.
SP: Ninth! This is a lot of confidence in Lamar Miller, because frankly this is a group with all sorts of question marks. Can Miller adjust to being "the guy" and the workload that comes with it? Can Alfred Blue become as competent as some Texan fans seem to think he actually is because he's had a bunch of carries, but not really done anything? Is Tyler Ervin this generation's Kevin Faulk? If the Texans live up to this ranking, frankly, it means Osweiler might not have been the Texans' most important signing.
19. Houston Texans
Projected starters: WR DeAndre Hopkins, WR Will Fuller, WR Cecil Shorts, TE C.J. Fiedorowicz
Key depth: WR Jaelen Strong, WR Braxton Miller, WR Keith Mumphrey, TE Ryan Griffin
Key stat: DeAndre Hopkins has dropped just 11 of 256 catchable passes thrown his way over the past three seasons.
We weren’t big fans of the Will Fuller pick, with the former Notre Dame wide receiver dropping 10 of the 72 catchable passes thrown his way a season ago. That being said, he is a true deep threat, racking up 708 yards and 10 touchdowns on passes thrown 20+ yards downfield last year, and won’t be expected to be the No. 1 receiver in Houston. That title belongs to DeAndre Hopkins, the sixth-highest-graded receiver in 2015, and the player who racked up 1,590 yards and 11 touchdowns (postseason included). He’s developed into one of the top receivers in the game, improving every single season as a pro; the question now is, how much better can he get? Tight end is still a concern, with Fiedorowicz grabbing just 17 receptions last season, and just 22 overall since entering the NFL in 2014. With that knowledge, the wide receivers will need to carry the Texans’ passing game.
SP: If Fuller and/or Miller end up living up to the hype, this ranking should shoot up at least five to ten slots. It's weird seeing actual sprinter's speed in the Texans receiving corps. Like, super weird.
11. Houston Texans
Projected starters: LT Duane Brown, LG Xavier Su’a-Filo, C Nick Martin, RG Jeff Allen, RT Derek Newton
Roster depth: Tony Bergstrom, Chris Clark, Oday Aboushi
Key stat: Jeff Allen was the only NFL guard with more than 100 snaps last season with no sacks or hurries allowed.
The Texans’ offensive line has a lot of depth, but some of their starters haven’t played their best football recently. Duane Brown peaked in 2011 and 2012, and had his worst season since his rookie year in 2015. Derek Newton also took a step back after an excellent 2014 season. Although they lost their best interior lineman, Brandon Brooks (Eagles), they added Jeff Allen, Nick Martin (Notre Dame), and Tony Bergstrom, which could more than make up for it.
SP: Yikes, eleventh! That feels high, and considering the Texans' most important offensive lineman, Duane Brown, is coming off a blown quad, it's almost like PFF is assuming not only full health for Duane Brown, but that Duane Brown will actually be allowed to wear Robert Downey, Jr.'s Ironman suit during games. If this ranking is correct, the Texans will win the division.
8. Houston Texans
Projected starters: DE J.J. Watt, DE Jeoffrey Pagan, NT Vince Wilfork; OLB Whitney Mercilus, OLB Jadeveon Clowney; ILB Brian Cushing, ILB Benardrick McKinney
Other names to know: DE Christian Covington; OLB John Simon; ILB Akeem Dent, ILB Max Bullough
Key stat: The Texans recorded a sack on 11.7 percent of third-down passing plays, best in the NFL in 2015.
Any defensive front that boasts J.J. Watt is going to be up there in terms of a front-seven ranking, but supporting players started to raise their game around him last year. Whitney Mercilus must prove that 2015 wasn’t just a contract-year one-off, while Jadeveon Clowney needs to stay on the field to build upon his improved performance last season. Inside linebacker is an area to watch for the Texans, with Brian Cushing struggling to hit the heights of his 2009 and 2011 form since injury ravaged campaigns in 2012 and 2013. If Cushing can’t raise his game, the likes of McKinney and Bullough need to push for his playing time.
SP: If you replaced J.J. Watt with an average 3-4 defensive end, how far does this group fall? 10 spots? 15 spots? 24 spots? Watt is the greatest bargain in football, and he has a cap hit of $14.5 million. Rick Smith takes a lot of criticism for things, and has taken plenty from me, but the Watt extension might be his masterpiece. What a great deal for the Texans.
(UPDATE: CRAP! J.J. Watt is having back surgery!! I mean.... just.... goddammit.)
10. Houston Texans
Projected starters: CB Johnathan Joseph, CB Kevin Johnson, SCB Kareem Jackson, S Andre Hal, S Quintin Demps
Other names to know: S Kurtis Drummond, S Eddie Pleasant, S Antonio Allen, CB A.J. Bouye
Key stat: Johnathan Joseph’s 16 passes defended were second only to Marcus Peters’ 17, and Joseph collected them on 47 fewer targets.
Joseph is arguably coming off his best season as a pro in terms of coverage. In fact, he was the highest-graded cornerback in coverage after Week 2 and on. Johnson had his ups and downs as a rookie, but showed that he’s a capable cornerback. Jackson graded average last year, and is a season removed from a pretty good 2014 showing, while the pair of Houston safeties both graded above-average in coverage in 2015.
SP: The keys to being a top ten secondary will be the continued development of Hal and the health of Joseph. Hal was a revelation at safety last season, considering he was drafted as a cornerback in the seventh round in 2014, and Joseph turned back the clock last season, playing at a near Pro Bowl level.
OVERALL LEAGUE RANKINGS
So I went ahead and spreadsheeted all these rankings and added them up and ranked the teams cross country-meet style, where the lower the score, the better. Scoring to this method, we can look forward to welcoming the Packers and the Patriots here next February for the Super Bowl, which means our awkward Goodell-Brady trophy ceremony is fully intact!
Here you go...
TEAM DIV QB RB WR OL F7 SEC TOTAL
1 GB NFC N 1 11 8 3 18 5 46
2 NE AFC E 2 14 1 18 11 3 49
3 ARI NFC W 6 23 2 9 15 2 57
4 CIN AFC N 10 12 10 4 14 11 61
4 SEA NFC W 5 13 5 32 2 4 61
6 CAR NFC S 4 4 14 6 3 31 62
7 OAK AFC W 11 24 18 2 5 9 69
8 PIT AFC N 3 1 6 14 25 21 70
9 MIN NFC N 16 5 24 15 6 7 73
10 BUF AFC E 14 8 26 10 16 6 80
11 DEN AFC W 29 15 7 28 1 1 81
12 HOU AFC S 28 9 19 11 8 10 85
13 KC AFC W 19 3 28 17 7 13 87
14 DAL NFC E 13 10 15 1 24 30 93
15 JAC AFC S 18 7 4 23 20 22 94
16 WAS NFC E 17 32 3 12 27 8 99
17 ATL NFC S 8 16 17 5 28 26 100
18 NO NFC S 7 21 21 8 29 15 101
19 NYG NFC E 20 22 16 20 12 19 109
20 NYJ AFC E 32 17 11 24 10 16 110
21 BAL AFC N 25 19 12 13 19 24 112
21 TB NFC S 15 2 9 27 31 28 112
23 IND AFC S 9 29 22 16 26 20 122
24 PHI NFC E 24 31 29 7 21 12 124
25 SD AFC W 12 27 13 29 30 14 125
26 LA NFC W 27 6 32 31 4 27 127
27 DET NFC N 23 26 23 22 13 23 130
28 MIA AFC E 21 30 25 19 22 18 135
29 CHI NFC N 22 28 20 30 9 31 140
30 SF NFC W 31 18 31 26 23 17 146
31 TEN AFC S 26 25 27 25 17 29 149
32 CLE AFC N 30 20 30 21 32 25 158
A little more math on these rankings...
1. If we are using these rankings as the gospel, and at this juncture, they're as good as anything else, here's what the playoffs look like:
Byes: 1. Green Bay (NFC N), Arizona (NFC W)
Wild card games: 6. Minnesota (WC #2) at 3. Carolina (NFC S), 5. Seattle (WC #1) at 4. Dallas (NFC E)
Byes: 1. New England (AFC E), Cincinnati (AFC N)
Wild card games: 6. Buffalo (WC #2) at 3. Oakland (AFC W), 5. Pittsburgh (WC #1) at 4. Houston (AFC S)
2. Here are the final 2016 standings, according to these rankings:
AFC EAST: 1. Patriots, 2. Bills, 3. Jets, 4. Dolphins
AFC NORTH: 1. Bengals, 2. Steelers, 3. Ravens, 4. Browns
AFC SOUTH: 1. Texans, 2. Jaguars, 3. Colts, 4. Titans
AFC WEST: 1. Raiders, 2. Broncos, 3. Chiefs, 4. Chargers
NFC EAST: 1. Cowboys, 2. Redskins, 3. Giants, 4. Eagles
NFC NORTH: 1. Packers, 2. Vikings, 3. Lions, 4. Bears
NFC SOUTH: 1. Panthers, 2. Falcons, 3. Saints, 4. Buccaneers
NFC WEST: 1. Cardinals, 2. Seahawks, 3. Rams, 4. 49ers
3. Using the same method to rank the divisions as we did with the teams themselves, here are the rankings of division quality using the 1 through 32 rankings above:
1. AFC West, 56
2. AFC East, 60
3. NFC South, 62
4. NFC West, 63
5. AFC North, 65
6. NFC North, 66
7. NFC East, 73
8. AFC South, 81
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4. If you're looking for a reason why the Texans may have a tough time replicating their 9-7 record last season, look no further than their road schedule, in which they play the following teams on the road:
1. Green Bay (in December)
2. New England (on a Thursday night)
7. Oakland (in Mexico City)
9. Minnesota (indoors, thank God)
11. Denver (on Monday night)
So their five non-division road games are against five of the top eleven teams, according to the cumulative PFF ranking method. Brock's gonna earn that $37 million guaranteed.
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.