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Juggernaut Index, No. 1: It’s Houston, and it was never close

The Juggernaut Index is our annual preseason ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: For FANTASY purposes. We're not interested in real-life winning percentages here. This is simply about yards, points, and draft position.

Finally, we're ready for a ring ceremony...

1. The Houston Texans

The Houston Texans are entering their tenth year in the league, and the most significant achievement in franchise history is, arguably, the top spot in the Juggernaut Index. This team still hasn't earned a playoff berth, its all-time record is 55-89, and it has just one season above .500 to its credit (9-7, 2009). But this is Houston's second Juggernaut crown — and in the six-year history of this preseason feature, there's never been a clearer choice.

Gary Kubiak's club is one of only three teams with multiple players ranked in our overall top-25, and it's the only squad with two guys in the top-10. Houston features the consensus No. 1 fantasy wide receiver, the No. 2 running back, the No. 3 kicker, the No. 6 tight end and the No. 7 quarterback.

Defensively, the Texans consistently rank in the bad-to-ordinary range, which works out nicely for fantasy purposes — this is a team that finds itself in shootouts more often than not. Last season, they were involved in 10 games in which both sides scored at least 20 points, plus three more in which each side reached 17. Houston opponents averaged 26.7 points per game in 2010, the fourth highest total in the NFL.

So in a nutshell, the Texans are an almost perfect fantasy creation: The offense is rarely allowed to decelerate, and it's loaded with elite skill players. If you've made a heavy investment in this team, you will not be disappointed.

Juggernaut Index, No. 1: It’s Houston, and it was never closeArian Foster(notes) outscored all running backs in fantasy last season in every format, and by a wide margin. He led the NFL in rushing yards (1,614) and touchdowns (18), plus he topped his position in receiving yards (604) and finished second in targets and receptions (84, 66). Houston's offensive line is an elite unit, a group that delivers a zone-blocking clinic each week, and it returns every starter from 2010. In the Kubiak era, the Texans offense has given us a pair of top-10 fantasy backs — Foster in 2010, Steve Slaton(notes) in 2008 — and, perhaps more impressively, they allowed Ron Dayne to actually average 4.0 yards per carry in consecutive seasons.

Foster is of course dealing with a hamstring injury at the moment — you've probably seen the snapshot — but the beat reporters who cover the team don't seem terribly concerned. (As opposed to the TV dudes a thousand miles away, who, after examining a Twitpic, determined that Foster had acquired a hamstring-eating virus and would probably be dead in 3-4 weeks). Here's the Houston Chronicle's John McClain, discussing Foster's situation last Sunday:

Because it wasn't a serious hamstring injury, merely an aggravation of the injury that caused him to miss two weeks of camp, he'll be ready for the Colts [in Week 1]. No one knows for sure about it being an issue this season, but fantasy football owners should take him and not look back.

You'll rarely see an NFL reporter address a fantasy concern so directly. There's a degree of uncertainty with Foster, particularly in these early weeks, but there's no obvious reason to fret about his full-season fantasy value. He's a great back in an ideal situation. The preferred handcuff here is Ben Tate(notes), a former second round pick out of Auburn. Tate missed the 2010 season due to multiple leg injuries, but he's had an excellent preseason, and would likely poach some early-down work if Foster misses time. Derrick Ward(notes) is still in the mix as well. No, he's not an exciting name, but this team will produce a useful fantasy back, so we need to consider the entire depth chart in play.

Quarterback Matt Schaub(notes) has averaged better than 270 passing yards per game for three straight years, and he's just one season removed from an all-time yardage performance (4,770 in '09). There's no reason to think Schaub won't continue to be a high-volume passer, and clearly the weapons at his disposal are of the highest quality. You'll occasionally hear a fantasy analyst suggest that Schaub's small year-to-year decline from 2009 to 2010 was related to Foster's breakout, but it's important to note that his pass attempts remained virtually the same. He put the ball in the air 36.4 times per game in '09 and 35.9 times last season. He was somewhat less efficient — his yards-per-attempt dropped from 8.2 to 7.6 — but he still delivered 4,370 yards and 24 TD passes. For a guy who was supposedly a disappointment, Schaub really had a pretty good year.

Juggernaut Index, No. 1: It’s Houston, and it was never closeAll-world wideout Andre Johnson(notes) missed three games last season (and limped away from many others) due to a nagging ankle injury, suffered early in the year. It's remarkable that he managed to give us 86 catches, 1,216 yards and eight scores, playing at something less than full strength. The prior two seasons, Johnson had reached triple digits in receptions and exceeded 1,500 yards. AJ and Larry Fitzgerald(notes) are in a tier of their own, at least in my view, just ahead of Megatron and Roddy.

The No. 2 option in the Texans' passing game is likely to be tight end Owen Daniels(notes), who's finally recovered from the ACL injury that cut short his 2009 campaign. Daniels was a monster through eight weeks in '09, you'll recall, catching 40 passes for 519 yards and five TDs. He was terrific in the final month of the 2010 season as well: 22 receptions, 271 yards, two TDs. If we get a full 16-game season from Daniels, we're probably looking at an 80-1000-8 stat line. He's been a steal throughout draft season, a guy who could easily produce top-tier numbers at a lower-tier price.

Beyond Johnson and Daniels in this receiving corps, we find three vets that everyone has owned in fantasy at some point: Jacoby Jones(notes), Kevin Walter(notes) and Bryant Johnson(notes). Jones is the home run threat, Walter is a reliable 50-catch receiver. Johnson is a 30-year-old who might, if things break just right, deliver 35 catches for 380 yards and two scores. Realistically, none of these guys will be every-week starters unless someone above them on the food chain gets injured.

Houston's defense has a few notable IDPs — DeMeco Ryans(notes), Danieal Manning(notes), Johnathan Joseph(notes) and Brian Cushing(notes) — and Wade Phillips will coach 'em up this year as coordinator. Speaking selfishly, for fantasy purposes, I kinda hope this defense doesn't improve a bit, because I'm looking forward to another year of insane scoring binges and fourth quarter comebacks.

Speaking more objectively, if Houston can't claim the AFC South title this season, with Peyton Manning(notes) sidelined indefinitely, then it's never gonna happen under the current coaching staff. Go win something, Texans, so we can keep the band together.

2010 team stats with NFL rank: 24.4 (9) points per game, 259.0 pass YPG (4), 127.6 rush YPG (7), 35.9 pass attempts (10), 26.47 rush attempts (19)

Previous Juggernaut entries: Washington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Carolina, San Francisco, Buffalo, Miami, Seattle, Oakland, Jacksonville, Denver, Tennessee, Minnesota, Chicago, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Arizona, New York Jets, Baltimore, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Giants, Detroit, New England, Indianapolis, San Diego, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Dallas, Green Bay, Philadelphia, Atlanta.

Photos via US Presswire

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