So something weird happened in the Texans' 19-17 win over the Denver Broncos on Saturday afternoon, something I never, ever thought would happen. It occurred on a benign, throwaway play in the second half of the game. The end result of the play itself isn't all that important, what I remember was the CBS cameras panning over to a player down on the field, clearly injured. I remember the announcers misidentifying the player as "Ryan Griffin," not surprising considering the CBS announce team was pretty bad on Sunday, and then correcting themselves — it turned out it was right tackle Kendall Lamm down on the field.
You can tell a lot about how you feel about a player by what your immediate reaction is to seeing them down on the field injured. The cold, calculating fan in all of us immediately begins reconciling the depth chart, and figuring out "Okay, who's the next man up?" Last season, the reaction to a Lamm injury would have been a shrug of the shoulders, and knowledge that the next man up was probably an upgrade to Lamm. That's not being mean, that's just the reality of Sundays in the NFL.
In 2018, though? Well, my reaction was "Oh my God, Kendall Lamm is down. Not Kendall Lamm!" And yes, I couldn't believe I was saying that, but credit Kendall Lamm — he has become a much better football player this season. Also, my reaction was partial realization that Martinas Rankin was coming in to block Von Miller for at least a few plays. (Lamm missed four snaps, Rankin gave up a sack to Miller on his first play replacing Lamm.)
So it got me thinking — who are the Houston Texans' most valuable players? I don't mean who are their best players, or most talented players, or players with the most potential. I mean, which players, if they leave a game (or God forbid, get injured for the remainder of the season), is there the biggest noticeable drop-off from their level of play to "next man up"?
So let's take rank the top ten. One note — because we are forward-looking here and don't dwell on the past, these will be the top ten REMAINING Texans, so Will Fuller isn't on the list. (For what it's worth, he'd probably rank somewhere between fourth and seventh, so that ACL tear was a blow.)
Here we go....
10 (tie). JUSTIN REID, S and TYRANN MATHIEU, S
The safety position has never been in better hands than it is now with Mathieu and the rookie Reid holding it down. Their play has allowed Kareem Jackson to slide back to corner and become the one man antidote to all the injury issues at cornerback. Losing either guy would have a big ripple effect on the Texans' secondary personnel groupings, especially on passing downs. Mathieu's leadership quotient has been, by all accounts, through the roof, as well.
9. KENDALL LAMM, RT
Yeah, you heard me! I'm putting Kendall Freaking Lamm in my top ten, in part because he's been fairly decent to solid in the handful of starts he's received since the Jacksonville game, but also because the drop off from Lamm to whomever would be next is frightening, considering the QB they're protecting.
8. LAMAR MILLER, RB
This is another one where, like Lamm, it's not so much that I'm enamored with the player ranked here, but just more nervous about what awaits if anything happens to him. Miller's been fine. Truthfully, this season is probably the best he's looked since signing here in 2016, but it's the depth chart that increases his value. D'Onta Foreman is still on the shelf, and I don't know if I'm ready for 25 carries of Alfred Blue every Sunday. In fact, I know I'm not.
7. JORDAN THOMAS, TE
Wow, the second rookie to crack the list! Good job, Brian Gaine! Thomas has proven to be a viable option in the red zone (three touchdowns in the last two games, all from inside the 15 yard line), which is huge, considering the red zone issues in Weeks 1 through 6. Ryan Griffin, the veteran among the TE group, has been invisible this season (11 catches on 27 targets) and Jordan Akins has had trouble getting untracked. Thomas is the cream of the TE crop so far this season, and a very solid blocker, as well.
6. JOHNATHAN JOSEPH, CB
Joseph has responded from that debacle of a game in Week 4 against the Colts with some of the best football of his career. Pro Football Focus named him AFC Defensive Player of the Month for October. Getting him back after the bye week will be huge, as the level of opposing QB play steps up in the final seven games of the season — well, steps up from horrible (Peterman, Bortles, Osweiler) the last few weeks to decent-kinda-pretty-good (Smith, Mariota, Mayfield, Luck, Wentz).
5. JADEVEON CLOWNEY, DE/OLB
Clowney is playing out his fifth year option of his rookie deal, and if his goal is to get a monster contract extension, then he's doing a pretty damn good job. After being injured and shut down in Weeks 1 through 3, he's been a beast since then, notching 5.5 sacks and playing solid in the run game. Finally, the fantasy is alive, the fantasy of Clowney teaming at a high level with.......
4. J.J. WATT, DE
I might have been wise to do the same thing with Watt and Clowney as I did with Reid and Mathieu, just putting them in a tie, but I think two things — one, Watt has been a notch above Clowney this season, and two, we can't underestimate the presence of J.J. Watt being back around this team on a daily basis, in practice, in the locker room.
3. KAREEM JACKSON, DB
I know our show wasn't the only one on our station, nor in town, this past summer, to discuss the possibility that Kareem Jackson and his top-five-on-the-team salary cap hit could be sent packing during or after training camp. Jackson, like many Texans, had a really bad season in 2017, and he wasn't getting any younger. Whatever it is that's gotten him not only back to the level he was at before 2017, but vastly exceeding, bottle it up, and give me some! He's been awesome, and deserves some Pro Bowl recognition after this season. He has almost singlehandedly allowed the Texans to continue functioning in the secondary through injuries to Kevin Johnson, Aaron Colvin, and Johnathan Joseph.
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2. DeANDRE HOPKINS, WR
It seems crazy now that there was a time where we debated whether Hopkins deserved to be paid like one of the top five receivers in football. I blame Brock Osweiler, the only player to ever shut down D-Hop. (Unfortunately, Brock was his teammate at the time.) DeAndre Hopkins is the best pure football player on the 2018 Houston Texans, and while losing Will Fuller was a real blow to this offense, at this point, they would be crippled offensively without Hopkins' other worldly play-making skills available to move the chains and in the red zone.
1. DESHAUN WATSON, QB
Really not a difficult decision at No. 1. We have the evidence here — the Texans went 1-8 last season after Watson's ACL tear. The Texans' scoring in his six starts was nearly 35 points per game. In the other ten games, the Texans scored 13 points per game. Hopkins is the Texans' best player, but each season will rest on Watson's health from now until the day he hangs up his cleats.
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.