In football, the previous season shapes the public's perception of a team heading into the next season, and if perception is reality, then the local expectations that we have for the Texans, and that the oddsmakers have for the Texans (a robust 16/1 to win the Super Bowl) may be a tad askew, if we are to believe Pro Football Focus' NFL positional group rankings for the upcoming 2018 season.
Pro Football Focus, of course, is a website that I cite frequently in this space throughout the season, for one main reason — they do good work there! There are two components to the PFF experience. First, they have some advanced, nuanced stats that you can't find in the basic places like ESPN.com. Things like "yard per route run," "TD passes off play action", "drops", stuff like that. Second, they have player grades for every player in the league based off of an "eye test" evaluation of every snap of every game.
The latter aspect, the subjective player rankings, is the far more discussed, often heatedly so, sector of Pro Football Focus. We discussed it all the time on my radio show last season, because the Texans had way too many players lingering at the bottom of the player rankings. Such is life in a 4-12 season with a couple dozen players on the injured reserve.
The Texans have made several upgrades to their roster, a couple of them with a chance to be substantial. However, the perception shaped by Pro Football Focus' preseason rankings of the league's positional groups paint a pretty gloomy picture in some areas if you're a Texans fan. Let's look at the rankings, with PFF's comments, as well as my thoughts....
STARTING QB - Deshaun Watson, 20th
2017 overall grade, rank: 68.1 (26th)
While Watson tore up the league from a statistical standpoint, he finished 26th in PFF grade at 68.1 and 16th at 75.4 if you remove a disastrous Week 1 game in relief against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The second number is a fair assessment of his play as he certainly showed a knack for the special plays, leading the league with a big-time throw percentage of 7.5, however he also ranked 33rd at avoiding turnover-worthy plays and his overall throw-for-throw accuracy ranked only 37th out of 41 qualifiers. It’s reasonable to expect Watson to improve as a player while experiencing a huge statistical regression.
SP COMMENT: I think PFF's criticisms of Watson, unquantified by their scoring system, are fair. He was a little loose with the football at times last season. That said, I think they WAY overvalue Watson's gunslinger mentality when it comes to his overall grade. To say there are 19 quarterbacks (or were last year on a per game basis) better than Watson is folly.
Top Three QB: 1. Tom Brady, NE; 2. Aaron Rodgers, GB; 3. Matt Ryan, ATL
Starting RB overall grade, rank: Lamar Miller, 68.9 (T-30th) / D’Onta Foreman, 59.9 (60th)
Lamar Miller has been nothing short of a disappointment since coming over from the Dolphins in 2016. His last two years there he had rushing grades of 90.0 and 75.8. His first two years in Houston, he’s earned a 57.9 and 64.7. The hope is that last year’s third-round pick, D’Onta Foreman, grabs the reins as the starter, but after a torn Achilles he’s no sure thing.
SP COMMENT: Sadly, I think this ranking is somewhat fair, when you consider (a) Lamar Miller has been a below average featured back, and (b) D'Onta Foreman has shown no signs of coming off the PUP list. Also, Alfred Blue lives. The back that I'm most excited about is Troymaine Pope, which says something about where the backfield is right now.
Top Three RB groups: 1. New Orleans; 2. Pittsburgh; 3. Arizona
Yards per route run as a unit, rank: 1.24 (T-22nd)
If this receiving corps is going to be ranked higher than this by the season’s end, it’s going to take Will Fuller staying healthy and consistent. He had seven touchdowns and averaged 1.96 yards per route with Deshaun Watson at quarterback. With all other quarterbacks in Houston last year, he did not score a touchdown and averaged 0.80 yards per route.
SP COMMENT: When in doubt, rank the Texans 16th. The key here is Fuller. If he takes a big step forward, and health is the key, this could be a top 10 group.
Top Three WR Corps: 1. Minnesota; 2. Kansas City; 3. Tampa Bay
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP:
Left Tackle: Julie’n Davenport, 47.6 overall grade
Left Guard: Zach Fulton, 68.8
Center: Nick Martin, 44.9
Right Guard: Senio Kelemete, 48.3
Right Tackle: Martinas Rankin, 71.1* (2017 college grade)
2017 season-end rank: 32nd (no change)
After fielding one of the worst offensive lines we’ve seen in the PFF era, there’s little reason to think they’ll rank anything other than 32nd again this upcoming season. While injuries certainly played a role – and it’s likely center Nick Martin could bounce back from an ugly 44.9 overall grade last season – they’ve pinned their hopes to other team’s castoffs and a fourth-rounder from 2017 to protect Deshaun Watson.
SP COMMENT: I honestly can't blame PFF for ranking the Texans' offensive line in last place, even with the upgrades GM Brian Gaine has made to the interior of the line, and the inherent upgrades that the 2018 tackles represent because neither of them are named Breno Giacomini. It's an "I'll believe it when I see it" situation, and I get it.
Top Three Offensive Lines: 1. Philadelphia; 2. Dallas; 3. Atlanta
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP:
Edge Defender: Jadeveon Clowney, 88.3 overall grade
Defensive Interior: D.J. Reader, 84.2
Defensive Interior: J.J. Watt, 89.3
Edge Defender: Whitney Mercilus, 75.1
Key Rotational Player: Joel Heath, 44.6
Pressure Percentage as a team, 2017: 33.2% (24th)
The Texans are one of the more interesting pass-rushing groups to look at, mainly because much of their potential success depends on players returning from injury and hitting the ground running. Former No. 1 overall draft pick, Clowney started his career as a better run defender than pass-rusher, but came into his own more in terms of getting after the quarterback last year, racking up eight sacks, 14 hits and 42 hurries. While Aaron Donald rightly gets all the credit for his dominance right now, it’s important to not forget just how dominant Watt was before having two seasons wrecked by injury. The man who produced 85 sacks, 151 hits and 197 hurries between 2011 and 2015 is a perfect candidate for Comeback Player of the Year in 2018 if he can stay healthy. Elsewhere in Houston, Mercilus racked up 26 sacks, 24 hits and 90 hurries between 2015 and 2016, before missing most of the 2017 campaign, so if he and Watt can hit the ground running, this is a unit that can cause problems for opposing offenses.
SP COMMENT: This is all about actually getting Watt, Mercilus, and Clowney on the field healthy at the same time. It hasn't happened in four years for any longer than a few games. I refuse to let myself get excited about this..... (but I really am kind of excited).
Top Three Pass Rush: 1. Philadelphia; 2. Jacksonville; 3. Los Angeles Chargers
TOP THREE RUN-DEFENSE GRADES AMONG RETURNING PLAYERS:
Kareem Jackson, cornerback – 91.4 run-defense grade
J.J. Watt, defensive interior – 90.2
Jadeveon Clowney, edge defender – 89.9
Missed tackle % on run plays, 2017: 9.9% (4th)
The big thing for the Texans will be the return of Watt. While he is known for his dominance as a pass-rusher, in 2015, the last season where he was fully healthy, Watt ranked seventh among 3-4 defensive ends with a 10.5 run-stop percentage. With a PFF grade of 89.9 against the run, Clowney was the seventh-highest graded edge defender against the run. Clowney’s 8.3 run-stop percentage ranked seventh at the position too, also highlighting his strength against the run.
SP COMMENT: This was one of the more underrated parts of last season's defense. Even when the wheels were falling off everywhere, they still defended the run pretty well. Defensive line coach Anthony Weaver deserves a lot of credit for the depth they've built along the defensive line. I think this group might finish higher than eighth once the 2018 season is all said and done.
Top Three Run Defenses: 1. Green Bay; 2. Denver; 3. New England
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Projected starting lineup:
Starting cornerback: Johnathan Joseph, 75.7 grade
Safety: Tyrann Mathieu, 77.6
Safety: Kareem Jackson, 52.2
Starting cornerback: Aaron Colvin, 80.0
Nickel cornerback: Kevin Johnson, 32.0
The Texans had arguably the worst secondary in the NFL by the end of last season and their moves this offseason recognized that. They signed safety Mathieu (77.6) after he was cut by Arizona and also added a slot corner in Colvin (80.0) from Jacksonville. They could still be in trouble if their former first-round pick in Johnson plays like he did a season ago. Johnson was the lowest-graded corner in the NFL and allowed a passer rating of 137.3.
SP COMMENT: Unfortunately, Kareem Jackson and Kevin Johnson were two of the worst performers in the league last season, according to PFF. However, credit Gaine for making bold moves to upgrade the talent level in the secondary — signing free agent Aaron Colvin, drafting rookie Justin Reid, and of course, signing Tyrann Mathieu. If healthy, and assuming a return to form from Johnson, I think this can be a top ten unit in 2018.
Top Three Secondaries: 1. Jacksonville; 2. Los Angeles Chargers; 3. Los Angeles Rams
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.